Disclaimer: Does the phrase I’m too old to give a damn about who owns what suffice? This is the third in the series that begins with A Tale of Two Kitties, and Mighty Oaks.
The Lancer surrey was parked at the ready in the front yard; Zanzibar and Solomon standing calm in their traces. It was, for the horses, a Sunday morning ritual. It was also a tradition Murdoch Lancer had required his sons, after the trouble with Pardee was over, to honor.
Attending church in Green River with his newly established family had been no problem for Scott. He had been raised Episcopalian by his Grandfather, Harlan Garrett, a staunch protestant and active patron of his local congregation; but for Johnny, it was a different matter. Although Murdoch had made it clear he had no difficulty with Johnny attending Mass -- he had made the commitment to raise his younger son Catholic in deference to his wife’s faith -- the youngest Lancer boy had been adamant in his refusal to go.
Scott knew that Johnny’s refusal was not so much that he found it difficult to abide by his father’s many rules (although that was a part of it); but because of some bad experiences as a reluctant ward of the Church in his not-so-distant past. Johnny’s belligerence, however, was short lived. Unknown to his youngest son, Murdoch had managed to convince the local justice of the peace to make weekly church attendance a part of Johnny’s probation after a series of minor infractions involving several of Green River’s new city ordinances; a condition Val Crawford gleefully enforced.
Not that Johnny didn’t fight it, Scott mused. Attending church with his younger brother was…interesting.
“I told you,” Teresa sighed; her tone more than a tad smug. Scott had just helped her into the back seat of the covered surrey. The young woman was dressed in her Sunday finery; and she pointed a gloved finger in the direction of the front door of the hacienda.
Just about to climb into the front seat, Scott hesitated. He stepped back down, turning slightly as his eyes focused on the invisible line Teresa had just indicated; his gaze settling finally on his younger brother. Johnny had just come out the front door; a freshly bathed and reasonably dressed up Johnny. Except for the battered Stetson he was wearing. Scott inhaled, muttering under his breath, “Oh, that’s not going to fly.” It wasn’t just the hat; it was what was under it: the mop of raven’s wing black, too long hair. Murdoch had sent Johnny into Green River the day before with strict orders to get a hair cut. He had come home late and had immediately turned in, well before Murdoch had returned from his weekly visit to Aggie Conway’s, and had successfully avoided the family at breakfast.
Teresa laughed. “The hat or the fact he didn’t get the haircut?”
Scott was standing beside the carriage now. “Neither one,” he answered. He was seriously considering going to the barn and saddling Remmie. The buggy ride into town was not going to be pleasant. Instead, he stood his ground. “Johnny,” he greeted.
“Hey, big brother,” the younger man responded. He reached out, using the back of his hand to smack his elder brother’s flat stomach. “You thinkin’ about ridin’ into church?” he asked.
The blond smiled, his head dipping slightly. He enjoyed this game; this connection he and his younger brother were cultivating, the uncanny ability to read each other’s thoughts. “That depends,” he said. He nodded to the vacant passenger seat at the front of the buggy. “Are you going to ride up front with our father?”
Johnny’s tongue appeared briefly against the corner of his upper lip as he considered his brother’s offer. There was a pecking order in the family; in the way they rode in the surrey, just as in the way they sat at the table or in front of Murdoch’s desk. In the buggy, as eldest, Scott always sat up front with the old man; he and Teresa riding in the back. “You feelin’ generous or somethin’?” the younger man asked suspiciously.
Scott tried wiping the smile away with the back of a gloved hand. That was one of Johnny’s little tricks; answering a question with a question. “No,” he answered. “It’s just if Murdoch’s going to be lecturing you all the way into town, it would be much easier if you were sitting beside him, as opposed to sitting behind.”
The younger man snorted. “What’s he got to be yellin’ about?” he asked. “I’m cleaned up,” he gestured with his hand, waving it ambiguously at his pants and jacket, “and I’m on time.”
The surrey began to sway slightly as Teresa dissolved in a fit of unrestrained mirth. She had covered her face with both hands in a fruitless attempt to stop the laughter. When she was finally able to stop, she looked down at her brother and shook a finger at him. “You didn’t get a haircut, Johnny. Murdoch’s going to be furious!”
Scott nodded his head in agreement. “She’s right, little brother.” He smoothed the front of his jacket. “Our father’s going to have your head.”
“Phtt.” The brunet cocked his head a bit. “It’s not like he’s gonna notice,” he said, pausing to stuff the dark fringe at his forehead back beneath the sweatband of his hat.
This time, it was Scott’s turn to laugh aloud. He found himself wondering just how many other pistoleros out there had the audacity to be as optimistic as his younger brother when it came to pushing Murdoch Lancer beyond the fragile limits of the man’s patience; or how many of them would have known better. “Get in,” he ordered, gesturing to the front seat of the buggy.
Johnny declined the offer and was already climbing aboard the back seat; stepping over the hem of Teresa’s skirt as he took his place behind the driver’s seat. “Don’t know what you’re so worried about, Scott. As long as I keep my hat on…”
Scott risked a sidewise glance at the front door and saw their father bearing down on them; the tall, well-tailored Scot crossing the courtyard in long, ground-eating strides. “You’re going to have to take it off once we get inside the church, you know,” he reminded.
The younger Lancer son was already relaxing in his seat; his hat pulled down over his eyes, his boots propped against the front bench. If he had to ride into town in the buggy, at least he was goin’ to be comfortable. “Hell, Scott,” he smirked, his forehead and nose hidden by the hat’s brim, “the Old Man ain’t gonna chew my ass out in front of the preacher.”
As was his custom as patriarch, Murdoch came up on the leeward side of the carriage, intending -- as usual -- to drive. However, before he took his seat, he paused just long enough to knock his youngest son’s hat off his head; hesitating just for a heartbeat as his eyes narrowed and he took note of the length of the boy’s hair.
The lecture began immediately, even before the big Scot settled in. Johnny sat in the rear seat, trying hard to keep a straight face as his father’s head swiveled back and forth. It hit him then, the nagging question; just how many times his father could rotate his head around until it completely unscrewed. He sucked in his lower lip, pinching it between his teeth as he attempted to stop the smile; images of his Old Man’s noggin tumbling from the man’s broad shoulders and rolling down the hill to land in a bloody mess just beyond the arch.
It was a useless battle; fighting the laughter, and he gave it up. The next time the Old Man turned his attention back to the team, Johnny collapsed against Teresa’s shoulder; his sides hurting until he finally let it go. He laughed; aloud.
Big mistake. Murdoch swung around one final time; his face an ominous shade of purple. He silenced his younger son’s laughter with a single, harsh glare; the kind of look that would have made Johnny Madrid proud. “Don’t make me stop this buggy, young man!” he threatened.
Teresa scooted closer to Johnny and reached behind his head, grabbing a hank of hair just at the young man’s collar. She gave the soft curl a less than playful tug; hoping to stop her brother’s loud guffaws before Murdoch actually did stop the surrey. “Quit laughing!” she scolded; whispering. It didn’t help that Scott’s shoulders had begun to shake and he had wrapped his arms around himself in an effort to contain the laughter.
Johnny swatted the girl’s hand; hard enough the smack sounded like the report of a small bore rifle as they passed through a narrow canyon. “Jeez, T’resa!” he grumped; rubbing at the back his head. “And you’re on my side of the seat!!” He smacked her a second time; on her skirt and petticoat covered knee.
Murdoch pulled the buggy to an immediate and complete stop. One by one, beginning with Scott, the tall rancher stopped the laughter -- impending and otherwise -- with a stern and icy frown. The nervous team didn’t resume moving until all three young people were sitting properly in their seats -- the two youngest ones not touching -- and staring straight ahead. They had gone only a few miles when, from the back seat, came the plaintive request: I gotta pee. The surrey stopped; started. Five miles further: Are we there yet? Papa Lancer was not amused.
His mood didn’t improve when, at the closing of services, the minister announced the final hymn. They would be singing Blest be the Ties that Bind; verses one and four. It was a short hymn, and they would only be singing two verses. Johnny’s response to the announcement was a very loud and boisterous Amen! And then he tossed his hat into the air.
Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk, his elbows cocked and his hands tented beneath his nose; prayerfully intertwined. Both of his sons had been summoned to the Great Room, right after breakfast. His youngest son was seated in the chair at the front of the desk on his left. Scott was sitting as well; and it was clear from his expression it was not by choice. Both young men, even the proper Bostonian, were sitting slouched down in the uncomfortable chairs. Their posture was the same; Johnny’s right leg crossed, his ankle resting against his left thigh. His fingers were busy spinning the rowel of his right spur. Scott’s left leg was in a similar position, and he, too, was fidgeting. The long fingers of his right hand were smoothing the crease in his left pant leg. Mere inches separated the soles of the young men’s boots.
Experiencing a strange calm, the big man cleared his throat; determined not to lose his temper. He eyed his shaggy-haired youngest; willing the young man to look at him. “You,” he began, “are going into town. Today. Your brother,” he cast a quick look at his eldest, “will be accompanying you, and you will get a hair cut.”
The spur began to spin even faster. “Can’t,” the brunet muttered. “I’m broke.”
Murdoch smiled; his right eyebrow arching. He was prepared for this eventuality. Digging into his vest pocket, he produced a five dollar gold piece. He laid the coin on top of the desk, using his forefinger to scoot it across the dark oak. “Consider it an advance on your wages.”
Johnny frowned. He stared at the hunk of gold, his nimble mind plotting his next excuse. That one and a dozen others were immediately discarded. “C’mon, Murdoch,” he cajoled. “It ain’t all that long.” The argument proved to be a futile one as he lifted his head and the dark fringe at his forehead fell across his eyes and he had to brush the sweat-damp curls aside.
Scott shot his younger brother a quick glance, clearly annoyed at the boy’s stubbornness. Reaching out, he cuffed his brother lightly on the shoulder; his hand moving up to straighten the younger man’s collar, no easy task since it was hidden beneath the unruly mop. Johnny’s dark hair lay in ringlets; reminiscent of paintings he had seen of Botticelli cherubs. Not that Johnny, when he was in a mood, was particularly angelic. He smiled ruefully when the youth swatted his hand away. “You aren’t going to win this argument, little brother,” he murmured. “Give it up.”
Giving up was something the younger man had no intention of doing. “Next week,” he bargained.
Murdoch was shaking his head. “It’s not like we haven’t had this discussion before, son,” he ventured, raising his hand when he saw Johnny was about to protest. “You’re getting you hair cut; today. End of discussion.”
Johnny hated it when his Old Man issued ultimatums. “Nope.”
Scott had decided to ride Charlie. He led the roan gelding out of its stall, a bemused smile on his face as he watched his brother doing the same with Barranca. So much for his sibling’s blatant refusal of their father’s direct order.
Johnny was making a big production out of shaking out the palomino’s saddle blanket. The noise was enough that both horses were becoming fractious. “Goddammit, Barranca! Behave!” He smoothed the pad into place.
The blond was working hard to keep Charlie in line. He reached out, stroking the animal’s neck. “That’s good advice, Johnny.” The smile came; slowly. “You should consider it; behaving.”
“Fuck you!” the younger man snapped. When he saw the sudden frown on his brother’s face, he relented. “Sorry.”
Scott was fastening the cinch; his long fingers securing the straps. “You do need a haircut,” he said, making no attempt to hide his annoyance. “I don’t know why you keep fighting Murdoch on this…”
Both young men were now leading their animals out of the barn and into the yard. “It’s the principle of the thing,” Johnny muttered. It was a phrase he had heard his elder brother use on more occasions than he cared to remember. Scott was forever goin’ on about principles, virtue and the like.
The blond pulled up short. “Excuse me?”
Johnny swung up into the saddle. “You know how I feel about takin’ orders, Scott,” he groused. “I’m sick of the Old Man telling me what to do, and when…”
Scott mounted his horse; the animal moving out as soon as he placed his left foot in the stirrup. “We agreed he’d call the tune,” he argued.
Johnny snorted. “About this,” he said, gesturing with his right hand to the vast landscape that surrounded them. “The work, runnin’ the ranch; but…” his voice trailed off into nothingness. Not that he didn’t fight the Old Man about that stuff, too.
The elder brother was shaking his head; doing a good job of reading his sibling’s mind. “Johnny, you argue with Murdoch about everything; just for the sake of arguing. I’ve told you before, you need to…”
“…learn to pick my fu…’ the younger man caught himself, “battles,” he finished. “I ain’t gettin’ my hair cut!”
Val Crawford was seated at his desk. He hated paperwork, considering it a necessary evil; a once-a-month chore he performed with his usual efficiency but with great reluctance. In truth, he put it off until the last minute; setting aside the final day of each month for the job. Everyone knew his schedule where the paperwork was concerned, and -- consequently -- they all had the good sense not to invade his privacy.
Except, to his annoyance, Johnny Lancer. The lawman immediately recognized the soft, distinctive ring of the boy’s spurs as the youth opened the door and crossed his threshold. “Unless somebody’s dead,” he snarled without looking up, “or you’re here to pay me that ten bucks you owe me, you can just turn your sorry ass around and go pester someone else.”
The youth shut the door and grabbed a chair; dragging it across the floor until it was situated on the lawman’s immediate right; not giving a damned how much of a racket he was making. He turned the chair around and planted his compact rear on the wooden seat, his arms draped across the back. “And good mornin’ to you,” he grinned. He shoved back his Stetson, allowing the hat to drop between his shoulder blades.
Val gritted his teeth. “I’m busy,” he announced. “Get out.”
Johnny was toying with the storm strings; sliding the wooden bead up and down against the knot. “You turnin’ down an offer to help?” he asked.
The lawman’s eyes narrowed as he swung his gaze towards his tormentor. “Who you tryin’ to bullshit, Johnny?” he asked. He was well aware of the younger man’s on-going argument with Murdoch about the business end of ranching. More than once he had heard the elder Lancer threaten to hog-tie his youngest son to the desk when they were going over the books. “The Old Man lookin’ for you?” Even Murdoch knew better than to trespass into Val’s domain at the end of the month. Which made his office the ideal place for Johnny Lancer to hide out.
“Nope,” the brunet answered. He neglected to say that Scott was. “Just tryin’ to be helpful.”
The wheels on Val’s chair squealed as the lawman shoved himself away from the desk; the center spring recoiling as he swiveled around to face the younger man. “Sent you into town to get a haircut, didn’t he?” He stood up, stretching a bit before crossing the room to the small pot-bellied stove to pour himself a cup of chicory. Using his mug, he gestured toward the pot; offering a dose of brew to his companion. He smiled when Johnny shook his head. “Haircut?” he pressed.
This time the younger man shrugged. He was getting pretty pissed about this hair thing. “Not plannin’ on it,” he answered. “Figure if I wait long enough, the Old Man’ll give up.”
Val snorted. Johnny would have hair down to his ass before that happened. He headed back to the desk; smacking the younger man on the back of the head before he sat down; pretending his fingers had become snarled in the mass of black hair that spilled over Johnny’s collar. “Girls over at the Silver Dollar are takin’ up a collection,” he said amicably; blowing in his cup and effectively hiding the grin.
Johnny’s chin had been resting on his crossed arms. His head came up. “Yeah?” The smile crawled across his face; the same lop-sided grin that charmed the lost doves at the saloon into providing their services for free. Some of them, anyway. “They plannin’ on buyin’ a pew at the church?” He laughed at the thought. Murdoch had donated a bundle for a family pew after his sons had returned home; fancy brass name plate and everything. The idea of a bunch of whores buying a seat right behind the Old Man was pretty funny.
The lawman took a long drink of his coffee before he answered. “Nope.” The corners of his mouth were twitching. “Said if you keep lettin’ your hair grow, they’re gonna buy you a dress; put you to work upstairs.” He sat forward in the chair, his face closer to the youth. “It’s all them pretty curls,” he joshed.
The younger man pushed himself up from his chair, at the same time pulling the thongs that held his hat in place; grabbing the Stetson and using it to swat at the lawman. “Think you’re pretty funny, don’t you, old man!?” he fumed.
Val raised his arms, warding off the blows and scooting back in his chair until he was on his feet. “Don’t you mess with me, boy!” he cautioned. “I still got a few friends among the Comanch that’d be more’n glad to give you a hair cut!”
“Yeah?” Johnny continued his assault; dancing away as Val landed a light cuff up aside his head. “They’d have to catch me first!” he laughed. “Ain’t a chance in Hell of that happenin’.”
The tussling continued; Val using the advantage of his long arms to keep his distance. And then the door opened.
Johnny spun around, his heart thudding deep in his chest as he instinctively backed up against the lawman and faced the door. “Goddammit, Scott!” he swore. It was spooky the way Scott could so perfectly mimic their father; and he fell for it every fucking time!.
Val used both hands to give the younger man a gentle shove forward. He nodded in greeting to the blond. “I take it you’ve been lookin’ for him,” he grinned. Scott’s arms were folded across his chest, his fingers kneading his triceps; as if he was purposely keeping his hands busy. Better there than around Johnny’s neck, the lawman mused.
“For the last two hours,” Scott answered wearily. “You,” he said, finally unfolding his arms; the words directed at his brother. The blue eyes were smouldering, almost the color of ash. “Haircut.” Just the one word. And then he pointed to the door.
Johnny took his time putting on his hat, pulling it down as far on his forehead as he could. No easy thing considering the amount of hair involved. “Don’t think so,” he answered back. “Told you before we left Lancer, it’s…”
Scott shook his head, ignoring the rules for proper behaviour as he interrupted his sibling. “If you tell me one more time ‘it’s the principle of the thing’, I’m going to take my belt to you.” It was clear from his voice as well as his expression there was a good chance he wasn’t joking. Once again, he jabbed a long finger in the direction of the door.
“You and what army?” Johnny scoffed. He shifted his weight; his right hip cocked.
Val immediately raised his hand to volunteer. “Won’t be the first time I’ve dusted his britches,” he announced, smiling across at the blond.
Scott’s right eyebrow rose slightly. He was aware that Johnny and the lawman had a history. Someday, he was going to find out just how much, and how far back. He filed the thought away for another time. “I might just take you up on the offer,” he breathed. Reaching out, he grabbed his brother’s arm; just above the elbow.
Johnny’s chin jutted out ever so slightly. “Don’t make me knock you on your ass, Boston. I ain’t gettin’ no haircut.” He tried to pull away.
Determined, Scott held on. Someday he was going to add two more words to the dictionary to define the term stubborn: one of them would be his younger brother’s name, the other; his father’s. “Oh, yes you are,” he declared. “If you think I’m going back to Lancer -- to Murdoch -- without your having a proper hair cut, you are sadly mistaken.”
The brunet was trying, unsuccessfully, to pry his brother’s fingers loose. “Dammit, Scott…” He stopped struggling, deciding to use a different tact; reason. At least, his form of reasoning. “C’mon, brother.” He smiled up at the blond. “I been to church enough times to take a good look at those pictures the parson’s always pointin’ to.” It was true. He’d spent considerable time looking at the paintings (anything to avoid listening to the preaching); remembering similar icons he’d seen in the Catholic missions from his childhood. It had always struck him as odd: the chestnut colored hair and blue eyes, there in the heart of Mexico; a fair-skinned Jesus knocking at the door; Jesus, the Good Shepherd. “Jesus had long hair,” he continued, voicing his own brand of logic. “Longer’n mine,” he finished, flashing his I win! smile, the blue eyes dancing.
Scott nodded his head, as if in agreement; exchanging a long look with Val before responding, seeing the man’s grin. Like that argument would ever work with Murdoch. “True enough,” he murmured. “However,” he continued, his tone somewhat scholarly, “tradition also holds He never drank anything stronger than wine and He was celibate. Are you planning to follow those examples as well?”
Score one for big brother, Val thought; watching as Johnny squirmed. Not that the kid won’t think of some smart assed reply.
Before Johnny had the chance to answer back, the door to the office suddenly swung open. Ty Underwood, Val’s deputy stuck his head inside. “Fire!” he said and then disappeared.
Val cursed; vehemently. He headed for the hat rack and grabbed his Stetson; pausing a heart beat to call out to the elder Lancer brother. “Consider yourself deputized,” he declared. He leveled a hard look at the brunet. “And you get your sorry ass out there and start haulin’ water.”
Scott followed after the lawman, Johnny in tow. Together, the trio headed down the boardwalk, shouldering their way through the crowd that was gathering. Val was issuing terse orders as he strode down the walkway; rallying the men he thought most fit for the task at hand. He reached out, grabbing Scott’s arm. “We’ll need three lines,” he instructed. Then, spying his deputy: “Ty!! Get some men workin’ on that pump!”
Green River was typical of the frontier towns throughout California, away from the heavier populated coastal cities. The buildings in the town reflected the diverse cultures that had taken root as the indigenous peoples were forced out or eradicated over the centuries, the architecture as varied as the inhabitants. The Spanish influence still existed not only in the small mission just outside the city proper; but in many of the later buildings constructed atop the original adobe foundations. Most of the contemporary structures were kiln fired brick that had been shipped in from the coast; the older buildings wooden framed and clapboard sided edifices.
It was the wood buildings that concerned Val. The majority of the buildings that fronted the main street were constructed of native timber. Dry timber.
Men and women alike were lining the street now. Scott had helped jerry-rig the attachment of a four-man pump to the six inch pipe that was used to supply the community horse trough; assuring a steady flow of water. Bucket after bucket was filled; three lines forming a living chain as the pails were passed hand to hand.
It didn’t take long for Val to make his decision. He barked another order: “We need water on the other buildings,” he shouted, moving forward in the line to grab a bucket. “Walls and boardwalk,” he shouted.
Johnny had moved into place in line behind his brother. He passed off the pail, watching Scott’s shoulders bunch as the blond tossed the bucket of water onto the burning facade; accepting another pail from the man behind him, and purposely spilling the contents. Handing off the empty container to his sibling, he stifled a laugh.
Scott grabbed the bucket, visibly surprised at the lightness of the vessel. Angry, he turned around and found himself face to face with his grinning brother. “What the hell?”
He dropped the bucket, eying the next one Johnny handed him. This one was full.
The brunet leaned closer to his brother’s shoulder. “Damned shame, ain’t it?” he smirked, “Zeke’s barber shop burnin’ down?”
Murdoch looked up from his desk as Scott entered the Great Room, a tenuous smile coming as he noted his eldest son’s disheveled appearance. He watched as the young man crossed the room to the table behind the couch and poured himself a drink. “I take it you had to convince your brother to get his hair cut?” he smiled.
Scott poured himself a healthy measure of Talisker’s and downed it in a single swallow. He poured a second drink; and then filled a glass for his father. Carrying the tumbler to Murdoch’s desk, he put the glass down; and remained standing. “Johnny didn’t get a haircut,” he said.
“There was a fire in town,” Scott announced; his voice remarkably calm. “Zeke’s shop burned down.”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. Somehow the drink seemed like a good idea. As his son had done before him, he downed the liquor in one swig. His voice was whiskey-hoarse when he spoke. “And your brother was where when this fire occurred?” he asked sardonically.
Scott laughed. That had been his first thought, too; although he knew that Johnny was no pyromaniac. Crazy, sometimes; but not that crazy. “He has an iron clad alibi, sir.” He saluted his father with his now empty glass. “He was in Val’s office.”
The elder Lancer leaned back in his chair. “And where is he now?” he asked.
“Out there,” Scott answered, gesturing towards the door. What he didn’t say was that his brother was bragging to everyone within hearing that -- once again -- he had managed to not get his hair cut.
It was Sunday morning, and the Lancer boys were back in town; with a wagon load of lumber and a crew of men from the great hacienda’s saw mill. The townspeople had done a remarkable job of cleaning up the debris from the fire; leaving a clean construction site. Only the natural clay foundation remained; swept free of ash and still damp from recently being washed down.
Scott watched as Johnny buckled on a leather tool belt; doing a poor job of hiding his amusement. “Think of it this way, little brother. At least Murdoch agreed it was more sensible to get right to work than to accompany he and Teresa to church.”
Johnny brightened at that; briefly. The smile quickly turned into a pout. The irony of his current situation had not escaped him. “And we’re helpin’ Zeke build a new barbershop why?” he asked.
“It’s a matter of principle,” Scott replied, fighting the smile as he picked up a hammer. Several townsmen had joined them. “It’s also the neighborly thing to do.”
If the brunet was impressed with his brother’s magnanimous attitude towards civic duty, it didn’t show. He stood, caressing the head of the claw hammer that hung from his utility belt much the same way as he usually caressed his pistol. “You’re full of shit, Scott,” he breathed.
“That’s kind of the pot callin’ the kettle black.” Val nodded in greeting to Scott; the two men sharing a quick smile. Already, the hammering and sawing had begun. By nightfall, the lawman reckoned, the framework of the new building would be firmly secured to the still solid foundation.
The lawman paused in his musings to watch the bantering that was going on between the two brothers. Johnny delighted in teasing Scott over his meticulous attention to detail; purposely doing things in an attempt to distract his brother. First it was erasing the blue chalked plumb line; then it was tipping over a bucket of nails. Nothing, however, seemed to deter the blond from the task at hand. He merely swatted his brother away or side-stepped him.
Johnny, his arms spread for balance, was about to walk up a twelve inch wide plank Scott had propped against a sawhorse when the frolic came to an abrupt standstill. The next thing Val observed was Johnny doing a quick dismount to steady the board; his attention suddenly as intense as his brother’s. It didn’t take long to figure out why.
Murdoch Lancer was striding down the boardwalk. It was clear he was coming to supervise.
“Mornin’,” Val greeted. “Your boys are doin’ a good job,” he volunteered.
The big Scot nodded his hello. “I see,” he grinned; the smile reaching his eyes. He watched as Johnny and Scott took their places along beside the four man crew that was hoisting the first sidewall upright; the team skillfully manipulating the framework into place atop the two-by-four base that had been bolted into the original adobe foundation. His sons had become quite adept at barn raising since their return to the San Joaquin Valley; helping to restore the outbuildings and line shacks destroyed by the land pirates. Still watching his sons, he laid a broad hand on the lawman’s shoulder. “Johnny would do anything to get out of church,” he said, the humor in his voice as well as his face.
Val laughed. “Even rebuildin’ the barbershop?” he joshed; poking the bigger man in the ribs with his elbow.
Murdoch was taking off his jacket; which he laid neatly across the hitching rail. “He’s going to be Zeke’s first customer,” he announced loudly; as much for the lawman’s benefit as for his youngest son. Rolling up his sleeves, he waded in.
The sheriff was grinning ear to ear as he decided to join the workers. He took the place next to Johnny, the smile growing as he listened to the steady stream of muttered curses from the youth. He leaned in, close to the younger man’s ear. “Kinda makes as much sense as havin’ you help build a jail, don’t it?”
Johnny drove home a nail with such force he counter-sunk the spike deep into the angled two-by-four bracing.
Murdoch Lancer’s youngest son was definitely up to no good. Jelly Hoskins knew it for a fact when he saw the youth making his way towards the barn like his tail was on fire. Backing up, the old handyman hunkered down a bit before he peered out from the shadows beside the big stock barn. “Well, iffen that boy think’s he’s gonna go chasin’ off somewheres his Pa don’t want ‘im goin’, he’s got another think comin’!” he muttered.
It was as if the youth had heard the old man’s complaint. Johnny stopped mid sprint and spun on his heel, turning slightly to take a quick look back at the house; his head canted as if he were listening for something. Satisfied there was no one behind him he resumed his trek, welcoming the dark coolness as he crossed the threshold into the barn’s dark interior. He headed directly for Barranca’s stall.
Jelly Hoskins immediately took off in the opposite direction for the main house. He swept by Teresa with a quick hello and headed directly for the Great Room. “That boy ‘o yours is fixin’ to take off,” he huffed, removing his cap. “Out there, right now, saddlin’ up Barranca.”
Murdoch rose up from behind his desk. In the short time Jelly Hoskins had been at Lancer, he had taken on the role of Johnny’s sometimes overbearing guardian. The last few weeks, however, had been particularly trying for the older man since Johnny had been less than forgiving about what the handyman had done with the young squirrels that had caused so much mischief. “I can assure you, Jelly; the only place my son is going today is into Green River.”
“Not iffen you don’t head him off!” the old timer snorted. He was in his Banty rooster pose, rocking back and forth on his toes; his thumbs hooked into his suspenders.
The tall Scot sighed but said nothing. Jelly had a real need to get in the last word; no matter what. The rancher strode across the room, not even breaking stride as he gave the old handyman’s shoulder a quick pat. Jelly fell in behind; hurrying to catch up.
Johnny was whistling as he collected his gear. He’d done a good job of avoiding the Old Man, making it down to the kitchen well ahead of the rest of the family. A quick bit of affectionate teasing with Maria had garnered him an oven-hot biscuit wrapped around some ham and a well-done egg; more than enough to get him on his way. He chuckled, doubly pleased with himself because he had also gotten out of the house without being sidetracked by either Teresa or his brother, Scott.
“John.” Scott hesitated briefly and then stepped out from behind the stack of baled straw where he had been hiding.
The younger man tensed, his shoulders rising as he spun around to face his sibling. “Jesus, Scott,” he breathed. “How many times I gotta tell you. Don’t do that!”
“What day is it?” Scott asked. He placed himself between his brother and the main doorway. He was putting on his gloves.
Johnny’s mouth quirked up at the corner, but his eyes were hidden by the brim of his hat. “The ninth,” he answered slyly.
Scott’s gray eyes narrowed slightly. “Very good,” he complimented; “but let me rephrase the question. What day of the week is it?”
The brunet’s smile disappeared. He felt he was being questioned by a lawyer. “Saturday,” he answered.
This time, Scott clapped his hands in approval. “And what are we supposed to be doing on this particular Saturday?” he asked.
Johnny was ready for this one. The Old Man had recently read them a speech Queen Victoria had delivered to the British people; some commemoration of her dead husband. The old woman had used the word we throughout, and when Murdoch was done reading the speech aloud, Scott had done an excellent job of explaining the usage of the royal we. He leaned in towards his brother. “I don’t know about your we, big brother, but this we,” he thumped his own chest with his right thumb, “is takin’ Barranca for a nice long run up to Black Horse Mesa.”
“Wrong.” The voice rumbled to them from the direction of the doorway as Murdoch crossed the threshold into the wide corridor. Behind him, Jelly was smirking like the cat that had caught the canary. “We,” he gestured to himself and then his sons, “are going into town. Zeke’s officially opening his new shop this morning and you,” he pointed to his youngest, “are going to be his first customer.”
They made the ride into Green River at a ground-eating lope; Johnny painfully aware that his father and brother were keeping him between them like two vaqueros flanking a steer in preparation for a bull-dogging. At least they weren’t in the damned buggy, he fumed.
All three horses slowed to a walk as they reached the town limits. Johnny reached up to pull his hat down farther on his head; aware of the number of people who were looking in his direction. It was like the entire town knew his business and he didn’t appreciate the attention. It didn’t help when Val Crawford, grinning like a jackass, stepped out onto the boardwalk to wave in greeting.
Barranca suddenly shied; the crack of fabric setting the already nervous horse on edge as the red, white, and blue bunting that was strung across the street was lifted to a full salute at a sudden updraft of wind. Johnny reached out with his right hand, patting the animal’s neck. “You’d think it was the fuckin’ Fourth of July,” he muttered. The barber had gone to a considerable amount of work to advertise his new shop; and several other shop owners had decorated as well.
Both Scott and Murdoch were dismounting, their geldings less fractious than the palomino. “John,” Murdock cautioned.
Johnny’s mood was disintegrating at an amazing rate. “Well, it is,” he grumbled. He debated his next move; aware suddenly that Scott’s right hand was now resting firmly on his left knee. Giving up, he swung his right leg up and over the saddle horn and slid down to the ground; annoyed when his brother stood his ground. “Back off,” he ordered.
Scott swatted him. “Temper, temper,” he teased. He did, however, back up.
“Mornin’” Val Crawford watched as the three Lancers stepped up onto the boardwalk. He reached out, his left hand coming to rest on Johnny’s right shoulder. “Guess the girls over at the Silver Dollar ain’t gonna be buyin’ you that dress after all,” he joshed; his smile growing as he saw the younger man’s frown.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed the lawman. “I take it I’ve missed something?” he asked.
“Private joke,” the lawman answered. He blithely changed the subject, turning to look up the street to where the new barbershop stood; watching as -- for the umpteenth time that morning -- Zeke, hair slicked back and all suited up, polished the brand new, spring powered striped barber’s pole. “Old Zeke’s goin’ all out.” He snickered. “Offerin’ a nickel off to the first ten customers.”
Johnny’s gaze followed the sheriff’s. His head dipped slightly as he saw Mrs. Forbes and her four stair-step sons cross the street and head directly for Zeke’s place.
“Sir,” Scott, a bemused smile on his face, reached out to tap his father’s elbow. “We’re going to miss that ‘nickel off’ if we don’t hurry.” Señora Baldemero had just come out from the store, shooing two of her grandsons ahead of her. It was obvious that she, too, was heading for the barbershop.
Johnny swept his hat from his head, bowing grandly in greeting to the storekeeper’s wife as she approached. “Buenos días, señora,” (Good morning, ma’m) he smiled. The eldest Baldemero grandson, Victorio, just turned twelve, turned and stuck his tongue out and then danced away. Johnny swatted at the young boy with his hat, sharing a wink with the kid. Victorio had a good heart, but he was full of piss and vinegar; a quality that Johnny admired. And shared. “We can always wait ‘til next week,” he offered, grinning up at his father.
“That won’t be happening,” Murdoch groused. He nodded in the direction of the barber shop, urging his son forward with a wave of his hand. “Proceed,” he urged.
Reluctantly, Johnny did as he was told; feeling the heat of his temper rising as the back of his neck flushed. He stepped down into the street, knowing his father and brother were right behind him. It didn’t help that Jelly had just arrived in town with the supply wagon and was now pulling up in front of Zeke’s place.
“You boys done a fine job,” Jelly announced, watching as the three Lancers approached. He stepped down from the wagon and onto the boardwalk; dusting off his britches with his cap. “Yes, siree,” he nodded, “a fine job.” The smell of new paint was still heavy in the air.
Scott grinned across at the older man. “Well, thank you, Jelly! It wouldn’t have been official without your stamp of approval.” He turned to his brother. “Isn’t that right, Johnny?”
“I ain’t talkin’ to no cannibal,” the younger man announced, brushing by the grizzled old timer. He parked himself against the hitching rail; arms folded and buttocks resting against the iron cross bar.
Murdoch was shaking his head. “Jelly, perhaps it would be a good idea if you went ahead to Baldemero’s and picked up those supplies,” he suggested.
The grizzled older man snorted, his thumbs going to his suspenders. “Don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he complained. “Ain’t like he hasn’t told me that he’s et a squirrel or two in his time. ‘Sides,” he continued, “the boys in the bunkhouse thought that stew was a nice change from the beef and chicken…” His right eyebrow cocked. “And I ain’t no cannibal!”
Scott inhaled. He stepped away from his father, taking Jelly by the arm and guiding him back towards the wagon. “Supplies,” he said. “Now.”
Johnny was watching as Scott guided the old timer towards the wagon; a sly grin coming when he caught Jelly’s eye. There were times when he really liked seeing his older brother in his Lieutenant Lancer mode and this was one of them.
“Hey.” Victorio Baldemero sidled up to Johnny. He was too short to assume Johnny’s position on the hitching rail, but he gave it a try. The brunet reached down and helped him up onto the round iron bar; giving the boy a chance to settle in against one of the uprights.
“Your abuelita (grandma) makin’ you get a haircut?” he asked. Bending down, he scooped up a handful of loose gravel; chucking the small bits of rock with deadly accuracy at the cluster of piss ants burrowing in the sand in the shadows beneath the boardwalk.
Victorio nodded. Like the other Baldemero offspring, he was fluent in both Spanish and English. Unlike the others, he preferred to speak English when he was among a crowd of Anglos. Wise beyond his years, the boy seemed to intuitively sense that his world was no long what it once was, the post-War influx of English-speaking settlers from East of the Mississippi bringing changes, welcome and unwelcome. It was, from his view point, better to blend. “Yes,” he said. He turned to look up at his companion. “What about you?”
The brunet shrugged. “My Old Man,” he answered.
Victorio’s eyes widened in surprise. “But you are Johnny Madrid,” he breathed, unable to hide the surprise.
Johnny laughed. He risked a quick look at his father, aware the older man was watching. “Yeah. Well, that don’t count for much with Murdoch when he’s got his mind made up.”
The younger boy laughed. It was a good sound. He was swinging his legs, holding on to the crossbar with both hands. “Not with my abuela (grandmother), either,” he said, his smooth face suddenly creased by a petulant frown. “I was going to go fishing with Toby and Gilberto,” he sighed.
Suddenly, the boy’s legs were still. He stole a quick glance at his grandmother, who was in an animated discussion with the elder Lancer. Still holding on to the bar with one hand, he dug into his shirt pocket. He withdrew his hand, nudging Johnny with his elbow. When he opened his hand, he was holding a coiled up string of small firecrackers.
Johnny’s head dipped lower, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. “How many of those things you got?” he asked.
Victorio closed his hand. “More in my pocket,” he answered. He began swinging his legs again. “No matches,” he said.
Johnny shifted his position slightly, half-turning as a hand from the Circle C tied off his mount and stepped up onto the boardwalk. “I got matches,” he whispered. The crowd in front of Zeke’s was growing; even as Murdoch was holding his place in line.
Victorio leaned forward a bit; his gaze shifting to the window of the barber shop. Beyond the glass he could see the last of Mrs. Forbes’ four sons getting down from the barber’s chair. His own brother was about to be shorn. “I don’t want to get a haircut,” he sighed.
“Me neither,” Johnny commiserated.
Señora Baldemero chose this particular moment to summon her grandson. “Victorio!
“¡Venga aquí!” (Come here!)”
Johnny reached out to the young boy, lifting him down from the hitching rail. As he did so, Victorio slipped the firecrackers into Johnny’s waistband.
The brunet was careful to keep his hand at his waist when he turned around to face his father and brother. He watched as Victorio headed for his Grandmother; giving a slight nod as the boy turned back to wave at him. Grinning, he watched as his fellow conspirator stumbled and fell at Murdoch’s feet. It was just the subterfuge that he needed.
Murdoch bent down to catch Victorio’s arm; hoisting the young boy to his feet. “Are you all right, son?” he asked, brushing the boy off. Victorio suddenly began to wail.
Johnny struck the match as soon as he heard the boy’s cry. The flame ignited the small fuse and began to crackle, small golden sparks sputtering against Johnny’s palm as he cupped his fingers against the breeze. And then he made the toss.
The results were spectacular. Zeke’s brand new plate glass window heaved in and out, a large crack forming at one corner to zigzag upwards to the opposite corner. Pandemonium reigned as people scattered and horses pulled away from their tethers.
When Murdoch looked up, his younger son was nowhere to be seen.
Scott Lancer swore under his breath. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with his father in front of the barber shop, hands on his hips as he surveyed both sides of the long main street. A modicum of peace had been restored after the initial panic, customers again beginning to line up in front of Zeke’s shop. Johnny, however, was still among the missing. “Well, he isn’t going very far without Barranca,” he breathed, nodding in the direction of the sheriff’s office. The palomino was still tethered to the hitching post in front of Val’s office; its right hind foot cocked at rest.
“No,” Murdoch growled. He looked up the street towards the sheriff’s office, canting his head a bit as he saw Val squat down in front of Victorio Baldemero. There was some serious conversation going on between the lawman and the young boy, along with a great deal of finger-shaking from the child’s grandmother. “I want to talk to Val.”
The blond fell in beside his father, their strides in perfect cadence as they marched up the board walk. They arrived at Val’s office just as Señora Baldemero swatted Victorio’s behind three times in rapid succession; hard enough that the young boy was lifted off his feet. This time when the child began to cry it was for real. Straightening, the woman lifted her hand to brush a stray hair that had escaped her usually neat bun. “Perdóname, Señor Lancer,” (Pardon me, Mister Lancer,) she murmured.
Murdoch watched as the woman departed, Victorio in tow; his grandmother tugging him along by his right ear. “What was that all about?” he asked, turning to face Val.
“Victorio had the firecrackers.” Val was grinning. “Johnny had the matches.”
Scott took off his Stetson and slapped it against his slim thigh. “I’m going to kill him,” he breathed.
“You’ll have to find him before I do, then,” Murdoch declared. He turned back to the lawman. “Any suggestions?” he asked.
Val nodded. “Sooner we start lookin’, sooner we find him.” He reached out to the hitching rail, his fingers toying with Barranca’s reins. Nimbly, he pulled the lines loose and then refastened them; securing the leather straps with a double loop. “Slip knot,” he said. “Johnny always had this trick of tying off his horse with a slip knot,” he continued. “He’d give a whistle; horse would tug on the knot…” He stopped mid-sentence. “He’ll stick close until he can get to Barranca.”
Murdoch’s jaws were working. He knew that Val and his younger son had a history between them; a history that Johnny was unwilling to share. Like Scott, he resented the lawman and his secrets; but there wasn’t one damned thing he could do about it.
“It’s Johnny’s story to tell, Murdoch. Told you that when I first came here,” Val declared, sensing the older man’s displeasure. He turned his attention to Scott. “You know where he plays, Boston. Might as well start out with the Silver Dollar.” He shot the blond a knowing look. “He’ll be usin’ the back door.”
Johnny stood with his back pressed hard against the side wall of the livery, staying in the shadows. Sliding down until he was almost resting on his spurs, he took off his hat; and then peeked around the corner of the building. He could see Murdoch and Scott standing on the boardwalk in front of Val’s office, both men listening attentively as the lawman spoke. And then they took off; Scott crossing the street and heading in the direction of the Silver Dollar, Murdoch striding off in the opposite direction.
The brunet was almost giggling. He could feel the adrenalin pumping. Pushing himself upright, he rested for a time; considering his next move. Zeke’s shop would be closing at six -- he had seen the sign the smarmy barber had displayed -- which was going to make for a long day. Or not so long, he mused, once he got within whistling distance of Barranca. And then he was just going to take off for awhile; camp out maybe, give the Old Man time to cool off.
He laughed. Like that was gonna happen anytime soon. But that’s what it was all about, playing with the Old Man’s head; showing him who was boss.
Scott hesitated at the threshold of the saloon, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Then, swinging the batwings wide open, he stepped into the building. It was too early in the day for the usual trade, but he was surprised to find several people lining up at the bar. He called out to the man who tending bar, his voice betraying his surprise. “Clancy.”
James Francis Clancy, proud owner of the Silver Dollar, tipped his head in greeting. He was a big man; a true son of the old sod. He sported a full mustache that was the same color as his hair -- a flaming red turned copper by the sun. “Scott.” The man’s eyes were twinkling. “Drink?”
Scott shoved back his Stetson and rested his elbows on the well-polished bar; noting that the other patrons weren’t drinking either. “A little early for me,” he smiled. He leaned forward. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Clancy was debating if he should be lie or be truthful. “A little wagering,” he announced; taking a notepad from his pocket. There was something anticipatory in his smile.
The blond was definitely interested. He had several theories about gambling, and often indulged; usually with a reasonable amount of success. “On what?”
“The haircut,” The answer came softly; the words coming with a hint of a deep-south drawl.
Scott turned to face the voice. “Well, good morning, Miss Fairchild,” he smiled. He took off his hat and placed it on the bar. It hit him then, what she had just said. “Johnny’s haircut?” he asked.
“Odds are five to one and rising, since he got away from you and your Papa,” the woman replied. She smiled up at the young man, the small dimple at the corner of her mouth deepening. Moving in a bit closer, she brushed against his chest; the rustle of silk coming as her sleeve swept across his shirt front.
“Five to one,” Scott mused. He turned to look at Clancy. “In favor of whom?” he asked.
“The lad, of course!” Clancy answered.
Scott pointed to the row of bottles behind the bar. “Just one,” he said. “And then I have to go.”
Clancy placed a shot glass on the bar and filled it. “Not going to place a bet?”
The blond downed the shot in a single swallow. Lips pursed, he exhaled; his eyes watering. “Not yet,” he croaked. He turned to the woman. “He hasn’t been here has he, Rachel?” he asked.
“No, sugar,” she answered sweetly. While the young woman enjoyed the games the Lancer boys played, she generally refrained from participating. Unless, of course, she was properly compensated. One way or the other. Coyly, she began toying with the thick length of auburn hair that lay over her right shoulder; her fingers forming a perfect ringlet that encircled her right breast.
Scott bent down, kissing the woman’s forehead. “Keep him occupied when he shows up,” he murmured. He pressed a twenty dollar gold piece into her palm. “We’ll share the bet,” he said. “Those odds are going to go up, and we’re about to make a little money.”
She actually managed to blush. “And we’ll be betting on whom?” she asked.
The blond’s lips brushed against her ear as he whispered his answer. And then he was gone.
Johnny was now on the roof of Benton’s Bakery. He was straddling the pitched roof; resting a bit before pulling himself up to peer over the top of the three foot high facade. From his perch, he had a full view of the opposite side of the street. He grinned as he watched Murdoch exit yet another store. One by one, his father had methodically visited each establishment; removing his hat as he went through each door, putting the Stetson back in place as he came back outside.
Shading his eyes, Johnny looked up at the sky. His stomach was telling him it was getting close to lunch; at least that’s what he was feeling. It didn’t help that the smoke stack for the bakery’s oven was belching out the aroma of freshly baked bread. As if to confirm what he was experiencing, his belly rumbled. Enough of this shit, he thought, easing himself back down as he considered his options. He needed to get closer to Val’s office; to Barranca. And then he’d high tail it for home, sweet talk Maria into packing him some food…
Yep. He had a plan.
He pulled himself up again, gingerly balancing himself on the roof’s peak. Inching forward, he stared down into the street; rising up on his tiptoes as he considered his next move. Scott and Murdoch were nowhere to be seen.
Carefully, he lifted himself up over the edge of the false front; turning slightly as he dropped lightly down onto the narrow porch roof. Crouching, he scurried across the cedar shake shingles. It was an old game; one he had played many times in the past with his companions, making their way across roof tops as they danced their way through a town. It was good practice for someone who had to do a lot of running and hiding. And he had always been the best at both skills.
He made his way to the corner of the building, his eyes narrowing as he gauged the distance between the bakery and the neighboring building. A narrow alleyway was all that separated him from the second story porch of the town’s only hotel. Crouching back on his boot heels, he considered his options. He was still on the opposite side of the street from Val’s office, but he was getting closer.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny backed up a bit. It was a scant three feet that separated the bakery from the hotel’s railed porch roof, but he was still going to need a bit of a running start. He reached up, jamming his hat well down on his head, and pushed off.
Jelly Hoskins had picked up the supplies and was reluctantly heading back out of town. He stared hard at the ass-end of the matched team, muttering to himself. “Go fetch the supplies, Jelly,” he groused. “Take the supplies home, Jelly. Don’t fret about findin’ Johnny, Jelly.” He snorted. “Gettin’ so a man don’t do nothin’ but…” His eyes narrowed and he turned slightly as he caught a quick glimpse of a shadow in the dirt roadway that didn’t follow the normal rise and fall of the main street’s high-noon silhouettes. The peaks and broad rectangles remained static, but not the shadow that had just appeared where there should have been nothing but a stream of undisturbed sunlight. It was, he mused, like the dark shade of a great condor preparing to lift off; wings spread and legs pumping.
Except that this condor was wearing a Stetson.
Jelly pulled the team to an abrupt halt; standing up in the wagon was he turned his gaze upwards. “Johnny Lancer!!” he roared, his lower jaw jutting out as he bellowed into the morning quiet. “You better come down from there, boy!”
It was just enough of a distraction to cause the youth to break stride.
Johnny found himself clawing at the air, the fingers of his right hand closing around the railing; his left hand coming up empty. Precariously, he hung by one arm, finally grabbing the uprights with his left hand. Cursing, he pulled himself up, aware not only of the grizzled old coot that was parked in the middle of the street yelling at him; but the pain in his belly as his shirt caught on the rough planking and the skin beneath was raked raw.
Clambering over the railing, Johnny dropped lightly onto the porch. Just as quickly, he headed for the only open window of the four that faced the street. “Whoops,” he breathed, his eyes widening as he stepped through the opening to land on the carpeted floor. In his surprise, he slammed the window shut harder than he intended; the glass shattering and spilling onto the floor.
The young woman returned his wide-eyed stare. She had just stepped out of the copper bathtub in the center of the room; her pale skin shimmering with droplets of water that were cascading down her bare arms and legs. Ash blond hair piled high on her head, she stood frozen, a small length of towel clutched in her right hand.
He expected her to scream, and was surprised and relieved when she didn’t. The smile came then, slowly, one corner of his mouth lifting as his cheeks colored. Gallantly, he grabbed the light cotton spread from the four-postered bed; holding it out to the young lady. “Sorry,” he drawled. He wasn’t.
Canting her head slightly, she returned the smile; accepting the blanket and pulling it to her breasts as she dropped the toweling. “I’m not,” she breathed; the pale green eyes drifting over his body. Two weeks on a train and another week in a stagecoach with her mother and a disgusting collection of drummers and dowdy old women had left her hungry for someone nearer her own age. What she beheld was the answer to a young girl’s dreams.
There was a cheval mirror in the far corner of the room, behind the girl, and Johnny’s eyes were drawn to the young woman’s reflection. She had discretely covered her front with the bedspread, but her back and bottom were as bare as the day she was born. Her skin was flawless, except for a heart-shaped wine mark on her left buttock.
He was sorely tempted to stay. And then the door leading to the adjoining room opened. The older woman stepped through the doorway. She was holding a well-tailored spring dress that was folded across her forearm; her gaze focused on the pleating. “Mary Elizabeth,” she began, “I think this will be...” She looked up, and screamed.
Johnny doffed his hat; bowing grandly to the older woman. “Ma’am.” He winked at the girl. “Mary Elizabeth,” he grinned. “It’s been a pleasure.”
He was gone in a heartbeat.
“I’m tellin’ you, I saw him climbin’ through the hotel window!” Jelly fumed. He dropped down from the wagon, almost nose to nose with Scott as he continued his rant.
Val had joined the two men in the street. He lifted his hand to stop the handyman’s tirade; his own words dying unspoken as he heard the scream. Turning, he saw a woman’s head poking out of the broken second story window of the hotel; a series of high-pitched shrieks coming with each breath the woman took. It was as earsplitting as long fingernails scraping across a dry slate. “C’mon,” he ordered, grabbing Scott’s arm.
Jelly fell in behind the two men. “Wait fer me!” he shouted.
Scott turned back, never breaking stride as he spoke. “Find Murdoch,” he ordered. It was clear from his tone that he meant business.
“Find Murdoch,” the old man echoed. “Jelly do this, Jelly do that…” He headed up the street in the opposite direction.
Val and Scott entered the hotel in tandem, the lawman roughly shoving aside the growing crowd of gawkers. The harried desk clerk was talking a hundred miles an hour; his arms waving wildly in the air. “Broke into a room upstairs!” his voice cracked as he resumed yelling, the pitch rising as the words tumbled from his mouth. “Glass all over the floor; scared the ladies half to death!! Don’t…”
“Shut up!” Val ordered. His eyes swept the faces and finally settled on the shaken woman who was sitting at the bottom of the stairs. “Ma’am,” he said, dropping down on his haunches; his tone as gentle as if he were speaking to a child.
The woman was hyperventilating. “Upstairs,” she panted. “He came in through the window, into my daughter’s room!”
Scott’s gaze lifted to the landing at the top of the stairs. The young woman was standing with her right hand resting on the banister, a pale-skinned vision in a polished cotton, emerald green frock; a bemused smile coming as she returned the blond’s steady inspection. Without taking his eyes off the girl’s face, Scott reached down and tapped Val’s shoulder. “I’ll check upstairs,” he volunteered. He was already headed up the stairway.
Val followed the younger man’s gaze. “Figures,” he snorted, watching as the elder Lancer brother took the stairs by twos.
“Mary Elizabeth Halloway,” the young woman smiled, extending a well-manicured hand.
Bowing slightly, Scott graciously kissed the tip of her fingers. “Scott Lancer,” he announced. When he straightened, he was standing tall above her; close enough that he could smell the sweet, subtle scent of lily of the valley. He noted that her hair was damp at the nape of her neck. “I believe you’ve already met my younger brother, Johnny.”
She laughed, dipping her head slightly. “What a coincidence,” she smiled. She nodded toward the bottom of the stairs, where Val was still talking to her mother. The green eyes were dancing. “Serendipitous, actually.”
The blond found himself intrigued. He took the young woman’s arm, his left hand slipping to cup her elbow as he guided her down the stairs. “As in fortuitous?” he prompted.
“My father is an old friend of Murdoch Lancer’s,” she replied. “In fact, Father will be joining us in two days, and we will be visiting you at the hacienda.”
Before Scott could respond, he heard his father’s voice; the deep baritone coming with incredible calmness.
Val stood up and backed away as Murdoch Lancer gently helped the woman to her feet. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Scott, his right shoulder lifting in a subtle shrug as he nodded at the rancher and the lady.
“Oh, Murdoch,” Miranda Halloway sobbed. She collapsed against the tall Scot’s chest and dissolved into tears.
“Father,” Scott ventured. “May I present Miss Mary Elizabeth Halloway.” He drew in a deep breath, catching the inside corner of his mouth as he fought the smile. “She’s already had the pleasure of meeting Johnny…”
Murdoch’s right hand was patting Miranda Halloway’s shoulder; the tempo slowing as he considered his elder son’s words and the way Scott was already paying court to his friend’s daughter. And to think he had not only prayed for his sons’ return, he had actually paid them for coming. “Find your brother,” he ordered. “Now.”
Johnny Lancer mounted the banister of the back hallway stairs, pushing himself off; well aware of the ruckus that was already occurring in the hotel’s front lobby. He was still feeling the sweet rush of excitement that always came when he eluded his pursuers; this occasion made all the better by his unexpected meeting with the girl who had just stepped out of her bath. She was a looker, all right, he mused as his feet hit the floor. He was already regretting that they hadn’t met under better circumstances. He laughed at the thought. What could be better than catchin’ somethin’ that fine just stepping out of a bath?
Flicking open the deadbolt lock that usually secured the back door to the hotel, he stepped cautiously out into the shaded alleyway. Pulling the door shut, he leaned against it momentarily. Once again, he was in control. How many men -- good or bad-- he wondered, had chased him since he had struck out on his own? And how many had he managed to escape?
This contest, however, was different. The smile came again; the one that caused his eyes to come alive with mischief. This little game was all about beating Murdoch and outwitting his brother. He laughed. Hell, he was playing with the whole town now! Even through the closed door, he could hear the jumble of voices filtering from the hotel lobby. That, and the noise of people scurrying up and down the boardwalks on both sides of the street.
Johnny turned immediately to face the voice. Shit! “Hey, Ty,” he grinned as he faced the deputy. “Nice day,” he observed.
Underwood snorted. “It was a hell of a lot nicer before you hit town and started all your bullshit.” Similar in build and complexion to the younger Lancer son, Underwood was the same age as Scott. But, like Johnny, the young lawman was also a breed. It was a source of dissention between them; Johnny blatant in his pride of his mixed heritage, Underwood less so. “Val knows you tossed those firecrackers, chamaco; and Hoskins’ has been blabbin’ to everyone he saw you go through that hotel window.”
“Yeah,” Johnny drawled. “Shit happens.” He shoved himself away from the doorway. “Just playin’ a little bit with my Old man and my brother,” he grinned. The smile failed to reach his eyes. “Butt out.”
The deputy was already shaking his head. “I’m takin’ you in,” he announced. He tapped the butt of his pistol and moved forward.
Johnny laughed. Underwood was a half-way decent deputy, and Val was intent on raising him right. But the man didn’t know shit about street fighting. As if the game was over, Johnny raised his hands. And then, as soon as the man was close enough, he cold-cocked him; not as hard as he could of, but just enough to turn him into a soprano for a few hours. More or less.
Val went down on one knee; his right hand coming to rest lightly on Ty Underwood’s left shoulder. The young deputy was curled up in a ball, his legs drawn up close to his chest; his usually tanned face an ash grey. None-to-gently, Val roused the younger man. “How many times I gotta tell you, Ty,” he muttered. “You mess with the kid, he’s gonna kick your ass every time.”
Scott was standing just to the left, and slightly behind, the lawman. “Johnny?” he asked.
“Well, it wasn’t the god-damned Easter bunny,” Val groused. He was hauling Underwood to his feet.
Instinctively, the blond reached out to help; only to have his hand roughly shoved aside. “I’m sorry, Ty,” he apologized. “Johnny…”
The deputy was dusting his pants off. He was also avoiding Val’s harsh scrutiny. “Your brother’s a pain in the ass!” he snapped, yielding to his temper. “All this shit over a fuckin’ haircut!”
Val responded before Scott had a chance to voice his displeasure. “You haul your sorry ass back to the office,” he ordered, “and you stay there.” He willed the young man to look at him, his tone gentling some as he addressed him the final time. “Told you before, Ty. You can’t let it get personal.”
It was, the deputy knew, a dismissal. He considered the words briefly before giving a curt nod. Without saying another word, he turned and limped stiff-backed down the passageway towards the main street.
“Do you think you’re ever going to get him raised?” Scott asked; no small amount of humor in his voice or his words.
“About the same time you get your brother all growed up,” Val snorted. He turned, squinting at the blond. “Your Old Man should have just tied Johnny to a chair,” he announced. “That’s how I did it, the first time.”
Scott shook his head. “Someday, Val,” he breathed. He knew there was no point in pushing it. “It isn’t just the haircut,” he said. “He fights Murdoch over everything.” The smile came then, warming the young man’s blue-gray eyes.
Val removed his Stetson, smoothed his dark hair, and then settled the flat crowned hat back into place. “You ain’t figured it out yet, college boy?” He was smiling. “The only time Murdoch pays any real attention to the kid is when he’s buckin’ against the traces. Might tell your old man to think on that.” He pointed a long finger towards the main street.
The blond laughed. “You try telling that to my Old Man,” he grinned. “So where do you think he’s off to now?” he asked.
“God only knows,” Val answered, leading the way to the street. “My guess is he’s tryin’ to figure out how to get to his horse.”
For the first time in the long morning, Scott felt encouraged. “That’s going to be difficult with the animal tethered in plain view in front of your office. It’s not like Johnny’s that hard to pick out in a crowd!” It was true enough. Johnny had worn his usual garb into town: the bright red shirt and the distinctive dark leather calzoneras with their shiny, silver conchos.
God did know where Johnny was. In fact, at the moment, the youngest Lancer heir actually felt that Providence had put him precisely in the right place at the right time. Laundry day at the small mission…
Val was standing outside his office, flanked by Murdoch and Scott Lancer. He was toying with Barranca’s reins, checking to make sure the animal was still secure. Reaching out, he scratched the horse between the ears. He was one of the few men besides Scott and Murdoch with the balls to even attempt touching the horse without Johnny being present. “You open to suggestions, Murdoch?” he asked, still stroking the animal’s head.
The tall Scot’s right eye narrowed and he frowned. “That boy is getting his hair cut,” he answered. He turned to the younger man. “I’ve had about all his sass and nonsense I’m going to take,” he continued. “It’s going to end; here, and now.”
Crawford felt a sudden need to scratch his nose. He did a poor job of hiding the smile. Scott was failing completely. He watched as the blond sucked in his lower lip and bit down in an attempt to stop outright laughter. “I’m stayin’ here,” the lawman announced. “The kid’s goin’ to come lookin’ for his horse, and I’m gonna be here waitin’.” It was a lie; but well told.
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll take this side of the street, son,” he announced, pointing to the buildings on the opposite side. “You go the other way, but check out the livery first. That’s all we need, your brother getting it into his head to find himself a horse.”
Scott nodded and headed off; relieved to get far enough away from his father he could finally let out a breath without laughing. A quick in and out of the dark barn was all he needed. There wasn’t an animal in the large shed Johnny would have considered riding even on a bad day.
Content his younger brother hadn’t turned to horse thievery, the blond cut diagonally across the street and headed for the Silver Dollar. The saloon was down the street at an angle and opposite of Val’s office; a bit of a hike from the livery stable’s paddock. Scott adjusted his Stetson against the high-noon sun and started his trek. His long stride carried him across the wide dirt street and up onto the boardwalk.
He approached the saloon, doffing his hat in greeting as the hooded, brown-robed cleric passed him. “Father.” The word came without any forethought. The garb was a different color than those he had often observed on the streets of Boston, but the meaning -- for him -- was the same; and deserving of a show of respect for a man of God. He was moved to something akin to pity when he saw that the priest’s back seemed to be deformed. The clergyman acknowledged the greeting with a silent wave of his hand in the sign of the cross.
And then he heard it. The soft, distinctive ring of his brother’s spurs.
Scott spun around just the friar disappeared around the corner of the whorehouse. “Johnny!” he roared.
Johnny sprinted around the leeward side of the Silver Dollar; cursing a bit as his feet became tangled in the lower edge of the robe. Feeling like a fool, he bunched up the coarse fabric, his other hand securing the hood in place at his head. Bounding up the outside staircase, he hit the door on the run; his shoulder colliding with the warped wood.
From the alleyway below him, he heard a woman scream. He turned just long enough to get a look at the Widow Hargis, the sprightly little woman yelling her outrage at what she assumed to be a major and blatant about-to-be transgression by a member of the cloth.
Scott almost knocked the elderly woman off her feet. He reached out, grabbing her with both hands, immediately regretting the move as the woman swung her parasol at him. “Ma’am,” he murmured, backing up a pace.
“Did you see that!?” she shouted, her pale eyes glaring over the top of her wire-rimmed spectacles. “Heathens! The whole lot of ‘em!” Her Baptist upbringing coming to the fore, she took a breath and began another long diatribe, punctuating the words with a poke of the small umbrella; as if Scott were the culprit. “Papist deviant! Partaking of the devil’s…”
Reaching out, Scott grabbed the woman’s weapon. The parasol was useless now, the bent supports poking through the thin fabric; leaving flag-like shreds that fluttered on the afternoon breeze. “Widow Hargis,” he intoned, in no mood for religious debate; “the gentleman was going up the stairs, not coming down.”
Open-mouthed, the woman stared up at the elder Lancer son. She was still speechless when he bodily picked her up at set her out of his way, but soon recovered. “Well, I never!!!”
Scott was already headed up the stairwell in pursuit of his younger brother. “Which readily explains why you have no children,” he muttered.
Johnny headed for the one place where he knew he would find a reasonable amount of peace and -- for the proper sum of money -- an even larger allotment of discretion. Not even bothering to check that she might be busy, he swung open the door, and scurried into the room. “Rachel,” he greeted; backing against the door to close it.
The auburn haired Southerner feigned shock. “Why, Father! Have you come to hear my confession?” she giggled.
Johnny threw back the dark hood. “I ain’t plannin’ on staying the week,” he laughed. Already, he was shucking the coarse robe; cursing a bit when his right spur caught in the rough-weave fabric. “Shit!” The swearing didn’t help. When he kicked free of the cloth, there was a ten inch tear.
He was aware suddenly of a quick, harsh rap on the door. Eyes dancing, he placed his forefinger against his lips. “Shhhh!” he cautioned the woman.
The woman began kicking at the brown robe lying on the floor between them; using one foot to scoot it beneath the bed. Her eyes darted about the room. “Just a minute,” she called. Grabbing Johnny’s arm, she shoved him towards the tall, tri-fold screen that stood in the corner beside her dresser. Certain he was hidden, she composed herself and took a deep breath, and crossed the room to the doorway.
Scott’s hand was on the knob when the door opened. Hat in hand, he stepped across the threshold. “Where is he?” he asked.
Rachel smiled. Coyly, she stared up at the man; her eyes warm with humor. And then, remembering the bet she had placed for him -- a wager they shared -- she pointed a finger at the painted screen. “Why, I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about, Scott Lancer,” she drawled.
The blond nodded. “You should go downstairs, Rachel,” he whispered, bending slightly to bring his lips close to her right ear. He stepped aside and allowed the woman to pass; smiling broadly as she stomped loudly across the floor with an exaggerated, almost military stride.
Johnny listened to the retreating footsteps. Scott was pissed. He knew it by the way his brother was marching out of the room. “Guess I owe you one, Miss Rachel,” he said, moving out from behind the hinged dressing screen.
“I guess you do,” Scott answered.
Scott beckoned his baby brother forward. “That was a good one, little brother. The subterfuge with the priest’s robe and the sign of the cross.”
“Spurs gave me away, huh?” the younger man grinned.
The blond nodded. “Your spurs and the flash of red when you raised your arm. Oh. And the hump on your back where your hat was,” he added. If he was ashamed of the half-lie, it didn’t show.
Johnny was toying with the storm strings; his hat still hanging between his shoulders. “So now what, big brother?” he asked. He already knew the answer.
There was a hint of challenge in the question that Scott didn’t miss. “You get your hair cut,” he answered.
The brunet shook his head. “Don’t think so,” he reckoned. Head down, he charged his brother.
Scott was prepared for the frontal assault; but not the head butt. He felt himself being propelled backwards through the open door and into the hallway, Johnny scuffling with him and struggling to get his arm around his neck. It was their usual combat; more play than battle, but neither brother was willing to yield.
The blond had the advantage of height and his long arms; Johnny the instinctive quickness of a back-alley brawler. Both young men landed more than a fair amount of stout punches as they rolled down the hallway. They were on their knees, grappling like Greco-Roman wrestlers when they reached the top of the stairs, neither one of them quite aware as they lost their balance and started their downward roll.
They arrived at the bottom of the stairs in a heap; hesitating only briefly as they untangled themselves from several broken uprights and the partially collapsed banister. “You okay, Boston?” Johnny grimaced, grabbing his brother’s shirt front and cuffing the blond’s ears.
“I’m fine,” Scott answered, his fist connecting with the button of his brother’s chin as he rose up on his knees. “And you, brother?” he ground out.
“Better’n fine,” the younger man gasped. He swung at his brother’s head only to know the frustration of punching nothing but dead air.
There was the sound of scuffling boot heels as the two young men rose to their feet and danced their way through the crowd towards the bar. Peripherally, both of them could see that the bar had become crowded.
Johnny laughed as he threw another punch and realized the crowd was dividing in their wake in direct proportion to which side they were supporting. He heard himself being cheered on by several of his Saturday night poker buddies, a “go get ‘em, Scott!” coming from the smaller cluster of older men. Recognizing the voice, the brunet turned slightly to frown at a hand from the Circle C; stars appearing before his eyes as Scott scored another punch.
They sparred across the floor, aware of the sound of tinkling glass and tipped over chairs; Johnny giving his brother a two-handed shove that put Scott shoulder down across a felt covered poker table. The pedestaled table tipped over, crashing to the floor; poker chips and beer bottles cascading to the floor.
Scott recovered quickly, rolling away from his brother and jumping to his feet. He grabbed Johnny’s collar, pulling his brother towards the long, polished oaken bar; narrowly missing putting his foot into a brass spittoon. Straining, he bodily lifted his brother up onto the bar, grabbing him by the belt and flipping him over.
Johnny was on his belly now, being swept along the polished mahogany with increasing speed. One by one, as if partners in a carefully choreographed dance, the drinking patrons lifted their glasses and stepped away from the bar to allow the youth’s swift passage. Instinctively, he reached back with both hands, grabbing his brother’s wrists in an effort to pull free.
The blond was feeling pretty confident as he dragged his brother across the top of the bar towards the front door of the saloon; nodding his thanks as ranch hands and storekeepers moved out of his way. And then he found his path suddenly blocked by six feet two, one hundred and eighty pounds of prime California cowboy, and he came to a complete and utter stop. It was all his younger brother needed to make his escape. Johnny wrenched himself free, dropped lightly to the floor, and disappeared through the batwings.
Reese Simmons lifted his beer stein in apology to the elder Lancer brother; a man he considered a good friend. “Sorry, Scott,” he said, smiling contritely, “I got a pretty hefty bundle bet on the kid.”
Johnny skidded to a stop in front of the saloon, taking some time to get his bearings. He shot a quick look in the direction of Val’s office; grinning as he saw Barranca standing at rest at the hitching post. Placing to fingers to his lips, he gave a sharp whistle.
The palomino’s head came up suddenly, the animal attempting to respond as he had been trained. Agitated at not being able to obey, the horse tried again; rearing up. This time the sharp pull of the bit against its tongue stilled the animal. Frustrated, the horse whinnied; kicking out with its hind feet in protest.
Shit. Johnny shoved his hat down well on his head, and started across the street; pulling himself up short as he spied his father stepping out of Val’s office. Shit. Goddamn shit!! He immediately changed direction and headed for the alley. The next thing he knew, he was face down in the dirt; a dull ache in his right shin where someone’s boot had connected with his shin. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
“I’m really gettin’ tired of all this shit, boy.” Val was straddling the youth’s buttocks. He pulled Johnny’s right arm up behind his back, snapping the handcuff in place before doing the same with the youth’s left wrist. Roughly, he pulled the young man to his feet.
He marched the handcuffed youth across the street, not even breaking stride as he reached up and grabbed Johnny’s reata from Barranca’s saddle. Slipping the rope over his shoulder, he shoved the kid ahead of him; nodding curtly to the Lancer patriarch. “You could open the door,” he groused.
Murdoch failed to hide the surprise and stood back. He watched as the lawman shoved his son through the doorway and into a chair.
Val didn’t waste any time. With the ease of a well-experienced ranch hand, he shook out the loop and dropped it over the younger man’s shoulders. He gave the chair a quick spin, winding the lasso around the youth’s upper torso a second time before bending to hogtie his feet. Securing the final knot and brushing his hands together he straightened; satisfied with a job well done.
Scott stepped through the open front door just as Val shoved the wheeled chair into the holding cell. Murdoch flashed his eldest a broad smile. “Go fetch Zeke,” he ordered. Then, his gaze shifting to his younger son, his eyes narrowed. “And Sam,” he sighed. There was a slight knot forming on Johnny’s forehead, just above the boy’s right eyebrow; the blood already beginning to congeal.
Sam Jenkins sat at his kitchen table, his face buried in his hands. He was shaking his head, scrubbing at his eyes with his palms; his wire-rimmed glasses resting well back on his high forehead. “He’s where?” he asked through his fingers.
Scott nodded his thanks to Mrs. Armstrong, Sam’s housekeeper, taking a drink of the coffee before he answered. “At Val’s office.” He felt a need to clarify. “In Val’s jail.”
“And I need to see him why?” the physician pressed. He was stirring a generous amount of sugar into the hot, black coffee; aware that he was going to need the energy.
The blond smiled, self-consciously smoothing the front of his rumpled shirt. “Val experienced a little difficulty subduing him.”
Sam finished the coffee, seemingly unmindful of the liquid heat. “I’ll get my bag,” he sighed.
The doctor was grumbling. He was in a bad mood; his disposition not likely to improve any time soon. Johnny, as usual, was -- in spite of the fact he was trussed up like a Christmas turkey -- being a difficult patient. It didn’t help that there was an audience and the small cell was feeling cramped. “Hold still!” he snapped, smacking the young man’s right knee. Even hogtied, the youngest Lancer was a bundle of raw energy. He waited until the boy’s head was still and dabbed at the small cut with a cotton swab wet with witch-hazel; suppressing the smile when he felt the youth wince.
Finished, the physician straightened up. “Don’t know why you even called me,” he complained, frowning in Murdoch’s direction. “He’s too hard-headed to get hurt taking a small tumble, and it’s not like there’s anything in there,” he thumped Johnny’s head with his forefinger, “he’s going to shake loose any time soon!” He leaned down, nose to nose with his young patient. “Not much room for common sense, when the entire cavity is chock full of nonsense!” With that, the doctor began packing up.
Johnny opened his mouth to respond in kind, only to catch a quick glimpse of Val, who was standing behind Murdoch. The lawman was making a big deal of taking a large red bandana out of his pocket and twirling it into a makeshift gag. Clamping his mouth shut, Johnny turned on the Madrid glare. It wasn’t working; at least not on the lawman or the physician. He swung his gaze to the far side of the room; smiling a bit, but not with his eyes.
Murdoch was motioning to Zeke. “Your turn,” he announced; standing back as Sam Jenkins exited the cell. His tone was no different than when he was giving orders to his sons or his workmen.
The barber was standing well away from the others, sweat very apparent on the man’s forehead and the moustache on his upper lip. Bits of moisture beaded atop the carefully waxed and dyed lip hair. “Now, Mr. Lancer,” he smiled nervously. “Perhaps we should, uh, wait until a more opportune time…?” The man’s gaze was firmly locked on the youngest Lancer.
Unable to stop himself, Scott laughed. “Sorry, sir,” he apologized, seeing his father’s frown. He turned to the sweating barber. “He’s tied to a chair, Zeke,” he said. “You’re not going to find a more opportune time.”
Val nailed the little man with a harsh glare. “Get ‘er done, Zeke. We ain’t got all day here.’’
The barber inhaled; the entire room seeming to shudder. Nodding, he made a tentative move towards the cell. The next step was even more tentative. “Now, really, Mr. Lancer…” He was almost begging.
Crawford threw up his hands in disgust. He grabbed the barber’s arm and ushered him into the cell. And then he laid his hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “Him or me, boy,” he threatened.
Johnny knew it was not an idle threat. He also remembered the first time Val had cut his hair. He gave a single, terse nod. Still, he was not about to give it up completely. He waited until Val left the cell, staring up at Zeke; his lips barely moving when he spoke. “Better keep in mind I ain’t gonna be tied in this chair forever,” he whispered.
Zeke’s head bobbed up and down. He was, he knew, between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
Murdoch was standing leaning against the cell door. “I want to see those ears,” he instructed.
Clip, clip. Snip, snip. Johnny stared hard at the floor, the corners of his mouth turning down in a petulant frown as he saw the mounding pile of hair at his feet. He swore he could feel a cold breeze at the nape of his neck, and suppressed a shudder. It didn’t help when the barber finger combed his hair; a feeling akin to a flea-ridden cat rubbing against his bare leg. A quick look at his father and his brother didn’t improve his demeanor.
Scott bit back a smile. He felt Val poking his ribs, the lawman nodding towards Murdoch, who was now standing behind the chair where his younger boy was still hobbled. Paying close attention, he watched as his father bent over slightly; the big Scot’s fingers picking up a thick strand of hair from the floor -- a perfect, raven black curl.
The tenderness in the big man’s gesture stirred something deep within Scott’s soul. Murdoch’s expression was almost mystical, the lines in his face easing considerably as he wound the dark curl around his forefinger before opening his pocket watch and placing it inside.
Scott had seen a similar expression on his father’s face only one time before; shortly after he had arrived at Lancer. They were together in Scott’s bedroom, Murdoch watching as his son unpacked. The blond had presented his father with a picture of his mother; a hinged, twinned silver frame that also held a sepia-toned picture of himself when he was about three, taken shortly after his first haircut. Harlan Garrett’s housekeeper had preserved a wheat-colored curl beneath the glass; a curl the transfixed Murdoch Lancer had traced with a single finger tip, lost to everything around him except the tenuous link with his child.
“That will do.”
Murdoch’s deep voice woke Scott from his brief reverie. He smiled across at his father and nodded his approval.
Zeke stepped away from Johnny. The man looked as though he was about to faint. He quickly recovered, gathered up his brushes and scissors, and bolted through the door. The three men now standing in Val’s office laughed. The barber had left without being paid.
Murdoch called out to his eldest. “Untie your brother, Scott,” he smiled.
Val was at his desk. He pulled open the bottom right hand drawer and withdrew a still sealed bottle of Kentucky whiskey and three reasonably clean glasses. “Join me?” he grinned.
Scott was hunkered down beside his brother’s chair, rocking a bit back and forth on his toes; his hands clasped between his knees. He made no attempt at all to hide the smile that was pasted across his countenance, the skin at the corners of his eyes rich with laugh lines. Fingering the rope that was still looped around his brother’s shoulders, he began to sing, softly; knowing Johnny would recognize the hymn. “Blest be the ties that bind…”
Johnny, as best he could, turned his head to glare darkly at his sibling. “Untie the fuckin’ rope!” he ordered, the words coming from between clenched teeth. He didn’t know what he hated most right at this particular moment; his brother’s singing, or the fact he had been tied up with his own rope.
The blond looked as if he was actually considering the request. He levered himself up; still close to his brother’s side.
“What the hell are you doin’!?” whispered the youngest Lancer boy. He could see his brother’s hands moving, but Scott wasn’t doing one damned thing about untying the knots.
Scott was having a difficult time keeping a straight face. “Looking at your ears,” he murmured, bending closer. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen them, you know.” With that, he wet his right forefinger, using the digit to rub at an imaginary speck of dirt behind his brother’s ear.
“UNTIE…THE…FUCKIN’…ROPE!!” Aware his father was still in the room, Johnny whispered the words, but they sounded as intense as if he had been shouting.
The blond still hesitated. He took a single backwards step, stroking his chin with one hand as he surveyed his shorn sibling. “What to do, what to do,” he muttered. “Hands, or feet?”
Johnny bucked against the rope that was tight around his chest, his shoulders bunching as he attempted to display the handcuffs that were still fastened about his wrists behind his back. It was amazing how difficult it was to talk without being able to move his hands -- to make appropriate gestures -- but he gave it a shot. “You don’t untie me, Scott -- right now -- I’m going to kick your ass!”
Scott laughed. “The arms it is,” he chuckled; producing the handcuff key Val had given him. He moved behind the chair, unlocked the cuffs, and began fumbling with the ropes; but not with too much determination. There was, he mused, something very satisfying in seeing his kid brother reasonably still while awake.
He was still toying with the rope when the front door to Val’s office opened and James Francis Clancy stepped across the threshold. The big red-head was wearing a bowler, and carrying -- tucked beneath his right arm -- the silver-headed cane he often used as a shillelagh to subdue drunks.
The Irishman said nothing, simply stepped into the cell where Johnny was still sitting tied to the chair. Eyes narrowing, he toed the pile of freshly clipped hair at the younger man’s feet and frowned. Beckoning for Scott to follow him, he headed back towards Val’s desk. Then, because he was a man of honor, he said -- the brogue was as thick as it had been when he was a boy -- “Well, come collect your winnin’s.” He dug into his vest pocket and withdrew a thick roll of bills.
Scott flashed a quick smile at the lawman and stepped forward, his hand out. Val followed suit. Both men’s smiles grew as Clancy counted out the cash.
Murdoch watched the proceedings with great interest, his blue-grey eyes filled with humor as it dawned on him what was happening. “Scott,” he began.
Clancy turned to face the elder Lancer. He was fishing in his shirt pocket for a small note book, which he withdrew. Tearing out a single page he handed it to Murdoch. “Damages,” he said. And then, before the big Scot could respond, Clancy tipped his hat in farewell and headed out the door.
Again, Murdoch turned to his eldest. His mouth opened, but before he could speak, he heard the sound of a scuffle. Turning, he watched as his youngest son attempted to scoot his way across the concrete floor of the holding cell.
Johnny’s face was a bright red. “You bet against me!” he hollered, staring hard at his brother and the lawman. When he didn’t get any response from either man, he repeated the words even louder. “YOU BET AGAINST ME!?”
Scott crossed the few feet to where his baby brother, who had managed to move only a few feet, was still sitting inside the cell. He bent forward slightly, his mouth close to his younger brother’s ear. He was still leafing through the collection of greenbacks, fanning the air beside his brother’s head. “Yes,” he replied. Then, leaning in even closer, he scored the coup de grace. “Our sweet Rachel also bet against you,” he whispered. Straightening, he smiled up at his father. “The odds were 10 to 1,” he announced gleefully; displaying the wad of cash.
It was more than the youngest Lancer could bear. He stopped struggling against the ropes that bound him and was still. But his mind was working. Gonna kill ‘em all, he mused darkly. One shot, right between the eyes.
Except for Scott, he thought. Scott was going to suffer for a long, long time.
They had formed an entourage of sorts. Murdoch was in the lead, driving the light buggy he had rented at the livery, Mrs. Halloway seated to his right; her daughter, Mary Elizabeth in the rear seat; their luggage safely ensconced in the boot. Jelly was behind the buggy, riding Murdoch’s big bay and leading Barranca and Remmie.
Driving the supply wagon, Scott was bringing up the rear; the young blond very aware of the pecking order and secretly amused that Murdoch had placed Jelly as a physical barrier between his sons and the nubile Miss Halloway. Life at Lancer, he smiled, ever up to a challenge, was going to be very interesting over the next few days.
Johnny was sulking in the seat next to his elder brother; arms crossed tightly against his chest, his eyes hidden by his Stetson. The blond sighed. “Get over it, Johnny,” he said finally.
The younger Lancer was staring straight ahead. Scott had handed him a mirror before he had completely untied him, which -- considering how pissed off he was at his brother -- was probably a good idea. Johnny worked the thing over in his mind; still puzzled by what had occurred. Murdoch’s quietly spoken ‘That will do’ to Zeke had stopped the haircut significantly short of a major scalping; in fact -- if he was honest -- the barber had done nothing more but give him a trim. That still didn’t keep him from being pissed.
Trying again, Scott nudged his sibling’s shoulder. “Just say it,” he prompted gently, his tone all big brother as he carefully enunciated the next two words. “Murdoch…won.” He had the good grace (and sense) not to mention his own profitable wager.
Johnny snatched his hat from his head and began beating his brother about the shoulders. It took a good half dozen whacks before he gave it up. “Think it’s funny, don’t ya?” he demanded; replacing the Stetson and pulling it down tight above his ears.
Scott laughed. “Yes,” he answered honestly. He poked his brother in the side a second time. “It’s the principle of the thing,” he teased.
“Fuck you and your principles,” the brunet snorted. “Still don’t know why he made us drive the wagon back,” he complained. “That was Jelly’s job!”
“It was until you told our father you intended to ride back to the ranch,” Scott countered. Shaking his head, he shifted slightly in the uncomfortable seat, wondering why he was being punished, too. Guilt by association, he thought ruefully. Sometimes, it was pure hell being the elder brother.
Johnny had calmed down considerably. He was, however, plucking at the conchos at his left thigh; deep in thought. A smile was building; the right hand corner of his mouth twitching a bit before it broke into a wide grin. “Gonna be interestin’ at dinner,” he ventured.
Scott clucked to the team, urging them forward as the wagon started up a slight incline. “Possibly.” He turned to look at his younger brother. The smile on the blond’s face matched his sibling’s. “I thought Mrs. Halloway was going to have a seizure when Murdoch introduced you as his son.” The smile widened. “The lady was not amused,” he said. He watched as the back of Johnny’s neck turned almost crimson.
The brunet’s chin was almost resting on his chest. It had been awkward. Murdoch had done a remarkable job of soothing the older woman’s ruffled feathers; not an easy task considering how Johnny had come to make the Halloways’ acquaintance. He bit the corner of his bottom lip, carefully considering his next words, but not able to leave them unsaid. “She’s got a birth mark, brother,” he murmured. Without looking at Scott, he indicated the appropriate spot on his own backside. “Heart-shaped, kinda red.” He tried to stop the laughter, but couldn’t. “How the Hell am I going to sit across the table from her, makin’ nice, all the time knowin’ she’s got this spot on her a…?”
“…derriere,” Scott finished for his brother. They were just passing under the arch. The team had broken into a trot without any urging. “And that’s assuming you’re going to actually be with us at dinner.”
Johnny hadn’t considered that possibility. Sure, the Old Man was still pretty pissed about all the trouble in town, but the usual payback for something like that would be making damned sure his youngest son was suited up and on his best behavior come dinner time. He turned to look at his brother. “Meanin’?” he asked.
Scott didn’t say anything, just nodded in the direction of the front yard.
Murdoch was standing in the courtyard, his hands on his hips. His eyes were hidden by the shadow from the broad brim of his hat; but not his mouth. The big Scot was frowning as he watched the approaching wagon.
Johnny shifted in the seat; his shoulders squaring as he pulled himself more erect, both hands wrapped around the edge of the wagon bench. He laughed. “What’s he gonna do? Shoot me?”
“No…o…o,” Scott answered, dragging the single word out as he stared ahead to the place where his father was now waiting. Murdoch had crossed the courtyard to stand directly in front of the brand new woodshed, and he was motioning for Scott to bypass the entrance to the barn.
Reluctantly, Scott halted the team just inches from his father’s broad chest. Without looking at his sibling, he tied the reins around the handbrake, the words coming whisper soft. “If I were you, brother, I’d run,” he advised.
Johnny shot his elder sibling a bemused look. “From what?” he snorted.
Scott’s eyes closed as he momentarily hung his head. He knew his younger brother was not stupid, but there were times when the boy was exceedingly -- dangerously -- foolish! Risking a sidewise glance at the younger man, he started to say something, only to find himself rudely interrupted by his father.
“John.” Just the single word; coming with the same force as the rumble of spring thunder from the distant mountains. Murdoch was standing beside the wagon now, to his younger son’s right.
Johnny immediately slouched down in the seat. He turned to face his sire and found himself eye to eye with the big man. Sucking in, he summoned all the bravado he could as his recent life flashed before him. Somehow, things didn’t seem quite so funny anymore; not even the part where he found himself in the hotel room with the naked girl. “Yeah?”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. “Get down,” he ordered.
Resigned, Johnny dropped down from the wagon. His father had backed up, but only slightly. The closeness only made the difference in height and build that much more intimidating. Johnny was actually aware that his father’s bulk and shadow were blocking the sun, and he felt himself shiver.
“Do you know what these are?” Murdoch asked, producing a hand full of paper from his front shirt pocket.
The younger man shrugged, reaching out a finger to leaf through the stack of tissue-like stock. “Givin’ up your pipe for hand rolleds?” he answered. Behind him, he heard Scott swear.
Murdoch’s face flamed a bright red; his eyes narrowing. “Bills,” he answered. He began to itemize as he used his thumb to separate the sheets; which he had placed in order of occurrence. “Zeke’s broken window, missing shingles on Benton’s Bakery roof, broken hotel window,” he took a breath, “the fine Val’s assessing for assaulting his deputy, bill from the mission for the missing clothing,” his face was now an ominous shade of purple, “a bill from the Widow Hargis for a new parasol, charges for the damages at the Silver Dollar, Sam’s bill, and…” his voice rose, “…Zeke’s fee for cutting your hair!” There had been no nickel discount.
Johnny grabbed the final piece of paper, figuring Zeke’s bill was the least expensive. He dug into his pocket and produced a five dollar gold piece. “I can get this one,” he announced cheekily.
Scott was standing at the rear of the wagon, beating his head time and time again against the tail gate. Murdoch, by contrast, was remarkably calm. He stuffed the stack of papers back into his pocket, and reached out, taking his youngest son by the arm and dragging him along as he headed directly for the woodshed.
Somewhat recovered, Scott reached out, grabbing his father’s sleeve. “Sir,” he said, immediately withdrawing his hand as if he had touched something hot. “Johnny’s head…” He nodded at his younger brother; at the still raw bruise on his sibling’s forehead.
Murdoch turned slightly as he looked askance at his eldest. “You don’t need to worry about your brother. Sam has assured me his head is just fine.” He frowned a bit, recalling that the physician hadn’t been that encouraging about what was inside his youngest son’s head. In fact, Sam had mumbled throughout his ministrations about Johnny’s lack of common sense, his carelessness and his penchant for mindless mischief. “The region of your brother’s anatomy you should be concerned with, Scott, lies considerably south of his cranium,” he proclaimed. His voice lowered. “I’m not going to beat him, Scott,” he said, keeping the words private. “I am, however, going to give him something to think about.”
In spite of the feeling of trepidation he was experiencing, Scott smiled. “Murdoch…”
The big Scot’s attention was now totally focused on his youngest. “John,” he said softly. He reached out with his free hand, opening the door to the freshly painted structure. He nodded to the dim interior.
Johnny stood stock still. He laughed, the sound fading as he glanced up at his father; something unreadable in the older man’s face. But not in the man’s eyes. There was determination there and something else. Humor, the youth thought; not quite understanding what he was seeing. “C’mon, Old Man,” he reasoned, attempting to back away. “You can’t be serious…”
“Oh, but I am,” the older man responded softly. He assisted his son across the threshold and followed him inside.
Scott found himself facing a closed door. He stood, his head canted as he listened intently to what was going on beyond the smooth planking. There was a brief scuffle, and then -- once again -- the sound of Johnny’s voice, the single word coming with a vague hint of nervous laughter. “Murdoch…?
The next sound was something Scott recognized from his youth. Harlan Garrett had been a firm believer in corporal punishment when his rather spirited grandson misbehaved; and had been quite vigorous in his application of a belt. And Scott had done more than his share of hell raising, in spite of the dire consequences.
Johnny’s voice again; the cockiness still there but definitely fading as a sudden ouch came that was loud enough Scott could hear it plainly, even through the closed door. “Jesus fucking H. Christ, Old Man!”
Oh, that’s going to cost! Scott thought, moving closer to the doorway. He held his breath, concerned at the sudden silence within the shed. There was some kind of verbal exchange going on between Murdoch and Johnny; not quite an argument, but a conversation that was definitely two-sided. He heard Johnny swear a second time; the string of profanities immediately stopping as the ensuing silence was suddenly punctuated by several loud, precisely timed and delivered thwacks.
The elder Lancer son decided a strategic withdrawal was in order, and made an immediate about face. He retreated across the courtyard, his stride lengthening as he heard his father coming up behind him.
Murdoch quickly overtook his eldest son, never breaking stride as he headed for the roofed portico. He was carrying his belt, the strap still doubled over. “You do know, Scott,” he said as he passed his son, “I’m holding you responsible for half the damages at the Silver Dollar.” To emphasis his point, he slapped the belt against his thigh before disappearing through the front door.
Scott sighed. So much for the money he had won betting against his baby brother.
“Don’t s’pose you got a hundred bucks you can loan me?”
Hands behind his head, Scott Lancer was lounging back on a stack of pillows on Johnny’s bed, his feet crossed and propped up on the foot rail. He turned his head slightly, grinning across at his sibling; not at all surprised at the boy’s brashness. Bootless, Johnny was on his feet in front of the highboy dresser, shoveling a forkful of mashed potatoes into this mouth. He ignored the younger man’s question. “Wouldn’t it be more comfortable if you sat over here while you finish your dinner?” he asked, pointing to the table and chair beside the bed.
Johnny had just taken a long drink of milk; his upper lip fringed by the liquid when he put down the glass. “Real funny, Scott,” he groused, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “So how about it? Can you loan me the hundred bucks or not?”
Scott levered himself up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Murdoch’s making me pay for half the damages at the Silver Dollar, you know.”
The brunet was poking around the tray that held his dinner plate; lifting the napkin in search of more food, specifically something to take the edge of his sweet tooth. “You get dessert with your dinner?” he asked.
“Chocolate cake,” Scott answered. “Teresa was bound and determined to outdo Maria’s last effort and she had frosting this thick…” he measured with his thumb and forefinger; suddenly sensing it would be wise not to continue.
“That figures,” the younger man snapped. He could see it in his mind’s eye; Murdoch supervising the preparation of his dinner plate. ‘Absolutely no dessert, Maria! He should consider himself fortunate he’s not going without his supper!’
Scott eyed his sibling, knowing full well what the younger man was thinking. “You would have had dinner with the family -- and dessert -- if you hadn’t made that little aside to Teresa when we were in the Great Room about just how much it was you saw of our Miss Halloway in that hotel room,” he ventured. Teresa had had to leave the table twice during dinner to compose herself.
Johnny plopped down on the bed beside his brother; a low whistle coming as he regretted the sudden move. The pain was immediately forgotten and he smiled. “Our Miss Halloway?” he laughed. He thumped his chest with his thumb. “I’m the one that saw her in all her glory,” he bragged. “Besides, that was the whole point.” He grinned up at his brother.
“What point?” Scott asked.
“I knew if I got the Old Man pissed off, I wouldn’t have to get all suited up and sit there doin’ all that yes, sir; no, sir, please and thank you, ma’am crap.” His brow furrowed. “They ain’t plannin’ on havin’ breakfast with us in the mornin’, are they?”
The blond was shaking his head. “Johnny,” he began, “didn’t you learn anything today?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question. “Yeah,” he drawled. “Don’t trust Rachel Fairchild,” he turned to look at his older brother, “or you, if money’s changin’ hands,” his list was growing, “or Val, when he’s pissed.”
Scott reached out, laying a firm hand on his brother’s shoulder. “And…” he prompted, losing patience.
The brunet’s head dipped, his chin resting against his chest. “… that I need to stay far away from that fuckin’ woodshed,” he finished. His head came up, the blue eyes filled with considerable humor and even more mischief. “Think you can heist me a piece of that cake after the Old Man goes to bed?”
The bed gave slightly as Scott lifted his lean frame off the mattress and stood up. “You have a better chance of borrowing the hundred dollars than you’ve got of getting any cake,” he said, turning to playfully box his brother’s ears. “I have no intention of ever visiting that woodshed,” he joshed.
“I’d pay to see that!” Johnny laughed; although he knew it would never happen. His big brother had been blessed with twice the common sense most men had, and he was a born diplomat. He stifled a yawn. “So, just what are we gonna do about our Miss Halloway,” he asked. His voice lowered. “What say we make a little bet, big brother,” he murmured, suddenly inspired. “I lose, I owe you two hundred,” he held up the appropriate amount of digits, already certain his brother was going to loan him the money he had asked for. “You lose, we’re square.”
Scott knew a dare when he heard one; even when it was disguised as a wager. “And what are we betting on, little brother?” he queried. He began pacing.
Johnny had to think about that one for awhile. “Aggie Conway’s hostin’ a dance next week for that visitin’ parson and his old lady,” he answered. “I’m bettin’ I can get Mary Elizabeth to go with me to the dance!”
“Sucker bet,” Scott scoffed. “For you. Mrs. Halloway would let Jelly escort her before she’d allow her daughter out the front door with you!” He turned, facing his brother. “You’re good, Johnny, but you’re not that good!!”
“Is that so?” the younger man shot back. It didn’t help his mood to know his brother was right. “Okay,” he drawled. “A kiss,” he suggested. “A real kiss.”
Scott eyed his brother suspiciously. “We’ll need a witness,” he said. “No offense, brother, but just saying it happened isn’t going to suffice.”
“No offense taken,” the younger man agreed solemnly. He grinned up at his sibling. “I wouldn’t believe you, either,” he declared.
“Teresa!!” they said in unison.
“Teresa, what?” the girl said. As usual, she hadn’t knocked.
Johnny grinned, his teeth showing. “Makes the best chocolate cake,” he said blithely. He pointed to his brother. “Me and Scott was just talking about who makes the best chocolate cake…” His fingers were crossed behind his back. Teresa’s cakes were good, but Maria’s cakes were damned near worth dyin’ for.
The young woman wasn’t buying any of it. “You two are planning something,” she accused. She turned to the dresser, picking up the tray she had come to fetch. “You’re going to spend the rest of your life eating in your room off the top of your dresser, Johnny, if you keep getting in trouble,” she cautioned. Feeling a need to say something to Scott, she faced the blond. “And you…” Unable to think of anything relevant, she simply turned her back on both of her brothers. “Men!!” she fumed, flouncing into the hallway.
Scott laughed. He watched as his younger brother stretched out on the bed. “This isn’t going to be easy,” he said.
Johnny’s left arm was behind his head, the fingers of his right thumping across his taut belly. Sounds empty, he thought, still missing the cake. He shook the thought away. “Easy ain’t all that fun, Scott,” he breathed. “Thought you had that figured out by now.”
The blond’s right eyebrow lifted. “You, little brother, are incorrigible. That’s what I’ve got figured out,” he said, shaking a long finger at the younger man.
A harsh rap sounded at the bedroom door, Murdoch stepping across the threshold without waiting for an invitation. His eyes narrowed suspiciously as he surveyed his offspring, recognizing the flicker of guilt and surprise that briefly marred their features before the mask of youthful innocence slipped back into place. “I want to speak to your brother,” he announced, stepping away from the doorway and gesturing towards the hallway.
Scott knew he was being dismissed. He nodded, but not before smiling down at his sibling and bidding him goodnight.
Johnny pulled himself up on one elbow. “Standin’ up or sittin’ down?” he asked.
Murdoch pulled the chair up closer to the bed. “You’re fine just as you are,” he answered. He watched as his son lay back down. “So did you learn anything today, Johnny?”
The youth didn’t fail to realize his father had called him Johnny instead of John. “Scott asked me that,” he replied; knowing full well more was expected. “Learned I don’t much like that f..” he immediately caught himself, “woodshed,” he breathed.
The Scotsman’s head dipped slightly, a faint grin touching his lips. “Then can I assume you don’t want to visit it again any time soon?” he asked; choosing his words carefully.
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered, the dark lashes coming together as delicately as a butterfly’s wings as he shook his head. “This ain’t the part where you tell me it hurt you worse’n it hurt me, is it?” he asked; the words coming softly.
“No,” the older man answered. “You were being punished, John; and with good reason. Since you won’t listen to me, or take me seriously when I tell you what I expect you to do, it seemed something more than talk was necessary. Let’s just say I was striving to get your attention.”
The brunet was chewing over what his father had just said. In a way, the words were familiar. Val Crawford had been, in a strange sort of way, the one constant thing in his otherwise inconstant life from the time he was five years old; and Val had been a disciplinarian. Problem was, he always knew where he stood with Val. He was never quite sure of the same with his Old Man. He sighed, aware of his father’s silent scrutiny. “Well, I guess you got it, Pa,” he said, “my attention.” His brow furrowed. “You sayin’ it could happen again?”
Murdoch eased himself out of the chair. “That, my boy, depends entirely on you,” he answered. He reached out, tousling the younger man’s hair. “Goodnight, son,” he said softly.
Johnny watched as his father headed back into the hallway. “ ‘That, my boy, depends entirely on you,’ ” he repeated. What the hell was that supposed to mean? he wondered.
Scott waited in the hallway, standing at the top of the back stairway that led up from the kitchen. He watched as Murdoch went into the big master bedroom, smiling as he heard the door shut. Grinning, he made his way to his brother’s bedroom door and let himself in.
Johnny had dosed off. He came awake blurry-eyed and disoriented, instantly calming as he picked up the aroma of chocolate right below his nose. Eyes wide, he followed the scent and sat up; reaching out expectantly. “Thanks,” he grinned. He took a big bite from the hunk of cake, lifting his tongue to the corner of his mouth to collect the smudge of frosting. “What made you change your mind?” he asked.
“It helped knowing precisely where Murdoch was,” the blond answered. “No surprises.”
“Pretty sneaky,” Johnny complimented. “Makes me kind of proud.”
“What did he have to say?” Scott asked. He dropped into the chair his father had just recently vacated; feeling the residual warmth.
Johnny was licking the overflow of frosting from the first two fingers of his right hand. “Said he was just ‘striving to get’ my attention,” he answered.
“Well, did he?” Scott pressed. “Get your attention?”
Johnny hesitated before taking another bite of cake; chewing a bit before speaking. “Some,” he admitted. “‘That, my boy, depends entirely on you,’”
Scott reached out to snatch a small crumb of cake. “What?” he asked.
“That’s what the Old Man said when I asked him if it could happen again.” He smacked his brother’s hand when the blond reached out a second time, but he didn’t pull the cake away. “So what the Hell do you think he meant?”
The blond did something entirely contrary to his proper Boston upbringing and sucked the frosting from his fingers. “You’re a bad influence on me, brother,” he laughed. “What he meant, Johnny,” he said, his mood changing and becoming serious, “is if you get into trouble again, you’re very likely to find yourself right back where you were this afternoon. You need to think about that,” he cautioned gently.
Johnny had finished the cake. “Okay,” he shrugged. He stood up and began to undress; shrugging out of his shirt and dropping it to the floor. The calzoneras were next. Wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off summer long johns and his white socks, Johnny stepped out of the pants and gave them a slight kick. He flopped back down onto the bed. “So, about our Miss Halloway,” he said, “and the kiss? A…” he stressed the next word “…real… kiss? We got a bet?”
Scott stared down at his brother. “I thought we just agreed you need to think about what Murdoch said; about it happening again,” he warned.
The brunet shrugged; reaching back to bunch the down pillows up behind his head. “I thought about it, Scott,” he said. The smile came then, the one that made his eyes dance. It was gettin’ awful hard, all this thinkin’. Except that part about the kiss, and the crotch warming memory of that heart shaped birthmark. “It ain’t like the Old Man’s got a prayer of catchin us, we play things right.
“I got a plan, ya know.” He reached out with his right hand. “The bet?” When Scott didn’t respond, Johnny began making little clucking sounds; like a chicken.
Scott knew damned good and well what his little brother was implying. “A real kiss, no simple peck on the cheek, and she’s got to be…willing,” he said. “And we’ve got to do it in front of Teresa.” He stuck out his hand.
Johnny grabbed his brother’s hand and they shook. “Gonna be fun, Boston,” he grinned.
Scott knew it would be; that was the problem. He also knew that he had just agreed to embark down yet another road to Brothers’ Hell. But such a prize, he realized. He knew only too well what a real kiss could lead to, and he was damned curious about that birth mark. “Until tomorrow, brother,” he said.
“Yep,” Johnny agreed. He turned over onto his belly and got comfortable. “ Night, brother,” he called. He was feeling pretty smug. Scott had been hooked the minute he had announced he had a plan; although the chicken sounds had been the clincher.
His older brother would turn in, but he wouldn’t go to bed. Nope. Ol’ Scott would be puttin’ pen and paper to this one, figurin’ out the best strategy for playin’ the game. For keepin’ out of the Old Man’s way while they played…
Scott headed for his room; his mind already formulating his own plan -- one he would share with his brother. Hell, he thought, the odds eventually had to swing in their favor. Murdoch couldn’t always come out on top. The trick would be keeping Murdock distracted and at the same time, keeping his eyes on Johnny.
The blond slipped inside his bedroom and picked up the pad of notepaper he always kept by the bed. Slipping off his boots he sat down, and began making the list. Mary Elizabeth’s father would be arriving at Lancer in two days. The task had to be accomplished before the man arrived. Likely sites for “the kiss” to occur: the garden, the kitchen, the area around Teresa’s chicken pens. He lifted the pencil, tapping it against his front teeth. A picnic up on the South Mesa! he thought, out in the open meadow; Johnny, Teresa, he and Mary Elizabeth…
Johnny was too excited to sleep. He’d formulated his own plan before Scott had even made it out of his room. Teresa was taking Mary Elizabeth for a ride tomorrow after lunch; in the small, two-wheeled light pony cart Zanzibar loved to pull. If he figured it right, they could lose a lug nut; right up by Cedar Creak where he was goin’ to be stringin’ new wire.
He smiled. Too bad Scott didn’t know about Teresa’s plans, he thought. His plan, he corrected himself. A small twinge of guilt taunted him, and he quickly dismissed it. All’s fair in love and war, Scott had told him once.
And who was he, Johnny Lancer, to dispute all that Big Brother wisdom?