Eggs Over Easy
Not mine; CBS and FOX abandoned them, and we’ve given them a voice and a home. That’s about as much of an apology as they’re going to get. Wish I could add an appropriate sound bite.
The family deals with another crisis; this time, Teresa’s laying hens; from Murdoch’s point of view.
Eggs Over Easy
It’s Sunday and, because of the rain, I’ve decided that today this family -- my family -- will spend some time together without the usual distractions. So, here we are, in the dry warmth of the dining room, enjoying our first meal of the day; barn chores finished, and nothing to do but settle in. No point in going to Church when it’s raining.
Normally, I frown on the habit of reading at the table, but breakfast is the exception. It is a good time for me to catch up on the mail and the weekly newspapers, while Scott tends to concentrate on some technical journal or pamphlet that has piqued his interest. Teresa, of course, has the latest catalogue that is currently being passed around amongst the ranch women; and Johnny…
Johnny has just recently become a fan of reading for pleasure. More relaxed than when he first arrived home -- more boy now than gunfighter -- his taste in literature is what would be called eclectic. He reads avariciously at times; books that Scott has encapsulated for him, that draw further interest. Anything written by Dumas for example, or James Fenimore Cooper; although he laughs at the names of the characters, such as Natty Bumppo. Although he says otherwise, he loves learning new things. He also loves to share his own wisdom with his brother.
Once, I overhead him in a serious discussion with Scott about how the Apache choose names for their children. His elder brother, ever the student, was entranced by the information he was gaining, and as I drew closer, I couldn’t help but see that my eldest son was listening to everything his younger brother was telling him, and accepting it as gospel:
Johnny: “Yeah, Scott. Spent one whole winter with ‘em; southern Arizona, runnin’ from Crook and those other blue bellies…”
Scott: “I beg your pardon, little brother. Blue bellies?” Scott’s eyebrow arches.
Johnny, of course, tries to look remorseful.
Johnny: “Oh, yeah. I forgot. You was a blue belly! Good thing you weren’t there with the ‘Pache, Boston.” He reaches out and musses his brother’s hair. “I’d be rubbin’ your bare noggin’!”
Scott: “You were telling me how they name their children, Johnny.”
Johnny: “Yeah. So quit interruptin’. Anyway, I met this sweet little thing…”
They leaned in closer, their heads touching; the way they tend to do when they are sharing a secret or locking out the rest of the world. Or me. “Oh, she was somthin’,” Johnny continues, a dreamy look in his eyes. “Legs up to here,” he makes a measuring motion at his chin with his right hand, and then drops his arm, cupping the fingers of both hands in front of his chest. “tits like ripe summer melons…”
Scott: “Names, Johnny. This is about the quaint custom regarding how the indigenous peoples name their children, choose their names; Running Deer, Evening Star…”
Johnny: “I’m getting’ there!” he snorts. “Anyway, here I was with this sweet little thing, thinkin’ about what it would be like to get married…”
Scott: “Please, God…” he’s muttering now. The idea of his brother -- his baby brother -- being married to anyone, anytime soon is almost more than he can bear. Reaching out, he clamps a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “How…do…they…name…their…children!?”
Johnny: “Jeez, Scott, and you holler at me for not bein’ patient!!” He actually manages to look indignant. Then, knowing he has pushed -- shoved -- his brother to the brink, he relents. “First, the baby comes.” His brow furrows. “Well, the baby comin’ ain’t exactly what happens first; but you already explained that part to me. Anyway, the baby gits here, and the Papa wraps it up and takes it outside. He looks around, and the first thing he sees; that’s the baby’s name. Runnin’ Deer, Risin’ Moon, Night Sky…”
Scott: “Oh,” he nods. “I see.” Grateful for the information, he gives his brother a pat. “Now, about that sweet little thing,” he asks, smiling.
Johnny has been sitting too long, and he rises. “Well, Scott, that was the whole problem; her name.” He turns away from his brother, and I can see the smile.
Scott has followed Johnny to where he is standing. “Her name?”
Johnny is nodding, his face serious. “Yeah. Couldn’t quite figure out how, if I’d a married her, I could bring ‘er home and introduce her to the Old Man and T’resa.”
Scott gives him a big brother hug of reassurance; missing that part about Teresa. “Come on, little brother, how bad could it be? Her father looks out and sees what? Babbling Brook, Little Buttercup, Crazy Horse?”
Johnny pulls away, poised to run. “No, Scott. Her old man looked out, and the first thing he saw was…” he takes off, “Two Dogs Fuckin’!”
I can’t help but laugh at the memory; Johnny running, and Scott in hot pursuit. I hate the obscenity, of course -- God only knows I’ve had enough battles with Johnny over his language -- but remembering his playfulness is another thing altogether.
“Somethin’ nip at your funny bone, Murdoch?”
Taking a long drink of coffee, I consider the question, as well as its source. “Just remembering something, Johnny.”
He puts down his book and I glance at the title. Johnny Madrid, Terror of the Border. “Musta been funny,” he observes, somehow sure the memory involves him. The smile starts slowly, at the corners of his mouth, creeping its way up to his eyes. They are dancing now, the blue crystal clear. “Thinkin’ ‘bout Sacramento?” he whispers.
“NO!” This in unison from Scott and me. I exchange a quick look with Scott, who immediately returns to his reading. Hopefully, beyond the fact he threw up on my shirt, I’m hoping Johnny remembers very little of what happened in Sacramento.
“Someday,” Teresa grouses, looking up from her catalogue, her eyebrow arching, “someone will finally tell me all about that trip.”
Johnny brightens. He leans slightly to his left, his chin almost resting on Teresa’s shoulder. “Well, for a choc’late cake, I might be willin’…”
“John!” I warn. He dips his head, but the smile is still there.
Scott is less direct but more effective in stilling his brother and diverting Teresa. He looks up from his reading. “You know, Teresa. About the problem you’ve been having with your laying hens. I’ve been reading this article,” he taps the paper with his forefinger, “and it says that there has been considerable scientific research regarding the care and feeding of poultry; and the correlation between what a chicken is fed, and how it affects their ability to reproduce…”
Johnny looks up, interested. “You seen our rooster lately, big brother? He don’t eat nothin’ but cracked corn and worms, and last time I looked…”
A single frown from Scott stops the impending nonsense. “…to reproduce and to lay more eggs,” he finishes, putting the pamphlet down.
Teresa pauses in her eating. “Really?” Her concern over the clutch of hens she has tended since she was a small child is real. She has named them all. There is even a special corner just off the hen house where she has buried the ones that have succumbed to old age.
No one would dare suggest that any of her hens end up in a stewing pot.
Except Johnny. “Jeez, T’resa! This is a workin’ ranch, ya know. Animal don’t earn its keep…” He makes a slashing motion at his own neck with his forefinger. “Nothin’ better on a cold night than a pot of chicken and dumplin’s.”
“Johnny!” Teresa actually shrieks. She shakes a warning finger at her brother. “If I ever catch you…”
He grins across at her. “Like you ever would. Catch me.”
I feel Teresa’s eyes searching me out; a desperation in her that signals a need for help. “John,” I begin, “let me assure you, where Teresa might fail, I’m sure your brother would most certainly succeed. And then I would deal with you.” I know he is teasing her, but it’s going too far.
Johnny makes a failed attempt to snatch the last churro from the plate at the middle of the table; Scott scoring with a quick grab, as if to drive home the point about being caught. “Sure could use some more churros in here,” he announces, loudly enough that Maria will hear him. Like magic, she appears from the kitchen with more of the still warm treats, fairly beaming when Johnny rewards her with a smile.
Scott sighs. “Anyway, Teresa,” he says in that soft, patient voice; “I had them make up a bag of the mixture at the feed and grain store when we were in town yesterday, and I think we should at least give it a try. According to what the article says, we should see positive results within fourteen days.”
Teresa is out of her chair in a heartbeat. Her faith in her older brother is obvious on her face, and she has no doubt that his plan will succeed. In no time at all she slips around behind me and grabs Scott in a tight hug, planting a kiss on his forehead. When she straightens, her hand is still on his shoulder, and she is giving Johnny her version of ‘the look’. “We’ll see who’s earning their keep! Next time Barranca goes lame, maybe I can arrange a barbeque!”
I offer up a quick prayer for the rain to stop. God is not listening. “Teresa…” I caution.
Surprisingly, Johnny is smiling. “And if Scott’s plan don’t work? Chicken an’ dumplin’s, chicken an’ noodles, chicken roasted…” He makes a mock pistol with his right hand, thumbs back the imaginary hammer and pulls the trigger.
Reaching out, I smack my younger son on the back of the head; not hard, just enough to get his attention. I lean closer, whispering, “And a steady diet of Maria’s chicken broth for you while you are recovering from your injuries.” To make my point, I nod in Teresa’s direction.
Johnny is rubbing the back of his head. He frowns, and then steals a quick look at his sister; suddenly realizing he has gone far enough. Properly primed, Teresa has quite a temper, and she is no laggard when she is within reach of Maria’s wooden spoon. “Hell, T’resa, them hens is so small, be a waste of my time; not to mention the bullets.”
This is my younger son’s version of an apology. Unfortunately, he is not done.
“Never seen chickens so small,” he continues. He looks across at his brother. “You ever seen chickens so small, big brother?”
Scott considers the question while giving Teresa’s hand a comforting pat. “Well, Johnny, some of those hens are obviously part Bantam.”
Johnny snorts. “Seen bigger prairie hens. Hardly worth cookin’! And their eggs…” Another snort. He makes a very small ‘O’ with his thumb and forefinger.
Scott again. “There are smaller birds, Johnny, and they are considered delicacies. Squab, for instance.” He’s smiling.
“Squab?” Johnny’s eyes narrow.
“Pigeons,” Scott answers.
I watch as my younger son’s eyes widen in disbelief. I should stop this, but it is still raining, my book work is all current, and Maria has just brought in a fresh pot of coffee.
“No fu…” Johnny catches himself, just in time. “No way, Boston! Not them birds we seen in Stockton!! The ones shittin’ all over them statues?”
Closing my eyes, I suck in a lung full of air.
“The very same,” Scott replies. “Properly cooked, with a stuffing of mushrooms and wild rice, they are quite delicious.”
Johnny is shaking his head. “They eat their own shit, Scott! I seen it. An’ once, in the square in Tijuana, I saw a bunch of the old ones peckin’ the hell out of a dead chick.”
Scott nods. “Chickens have also been known to cannibalize their own,” he says, matter-of-factly. “And please watch your language.”
Teresa can stand it no longer. She flounces out of the room; no doubt in search of Maria’s spoon. I hear them arguing in the kitchen.
Aware of the fuss beyond the dining room door, Johnny decides it’s time to leave the table. “Excuse me,” he mumbles. Then, looking at his older brother, “Still say, if them hens don’t start layin’, we should stew ‘em all.”
I notice he is almost whispering when he makes the final declaration.
“The hens will resume laying,” Scott proclaims. For emphasis, he taps the document he has been reading. “The new food mixture will work, and Teresa’s hens will do exactly what nature has intended.”
It has been almost two weeks now. Teresa’s devotion to the proper care and feeding of her brood of laying hens has been matched only by Scott’s detailed records of their experiment.
Surprisingly, Johnny has been supportive; has even helped. In part, his cooperation is due to the incident at the pond -- his own experiment; fishing with dynamite. Once his hearing returned, I made it quite clear he would not repeat that mistake; something Scott reiterated as he supervised the scaling, gutting and filleting of more than a hundred ‘keepers’. We have a sufficient supply of fish stored now; frozen in the ice house, pickled in Maria’s special brine, and some turned into pemmican to supplement our stock of jerky.
Cipriano was even more unforgiving as he superintended the repairs at the pond. He purposely relegated Johnny to the dirtiest and most menial tasks; including the excruciatingly odiferous job of burying the scattered pieces of dead fish, dead frogs, and piles of fresh water clams. And that was after corralling the stampeded cattle.
It’s early, and I enter the kitchen surprised to find my youngest son at the table. Johnny is no slacker, but he prefers sunsets to the sunrise. And no one -- no one -- risks talking to him until he has had at least one cup of coffee.
“Mornin’, Pa,” he greets, smiling. He’s about to finish his second cup of coffee.
“Good morning, my son.” I join him at the table; noting that his boots are on and his hat is hanging at his back. “You’re up early.”
He nods. “Figured on getting’ a head start on my chores.” He takes another long drink of coffee.
Behind us, I can hear Maria in the pantry; her words muffled by the closed door. I nod at the stove. “You haven’t been making a mess, have you?”
“Nope.” He lowers his head, the dark hair tumbling across his eyes; colliding with the long dark lashes. “Just snatched a couple a hunks of bacon.”
I sense a lie. Perhaps the word is too strong, but something isn’t quite right. The noise in the pantry increases. “Maria doesn’t get upset when you snatch bacon, son. At least, not that upset.” I nod in the direction of the clamor.
“Guess she’s lookin’ for eggs.”
Scott and Teresa enter the room just as I am about to speak. Like me, they are surprised to see Johnny at the table.
“Good morning, sir,” Scott takes his seat; picking up the coffee pot and filling his cup. “Brother.”
Teresa stops by my side just long enough to kiss my cheek. “Good morning, Murdoch.” She shoots a quick look at Johnny, canting her head. “Johnny.”
He raises his head, and smiles. “Mornin’, T’resa.” Still smiling, he nods in greeting to his brother. “Hey, Scott.”
Scott is stirring sugar and cream into his coffee. He takes a drink before speaking. “Maria seems to be upset this morning.” His gaze drifts to his brother. “You haven’t been cooking, have you?”
Johnny manages to look hurt. “Jeez. Try to get a head start on my day, an’ all I get is people askin’ if I’ve been messin’ around with Maria’s stove!” He sighs.
Unconvinced, Scott studies his brother. “Then why all the noise?”
Johnny shrugs. “Think she’s lookin’ for eggs.” Then, smiling, he turns to Teresa. “Those hens layin’ yet?”
Teresa is sitting in her chair beside Johnny now. “Yes.” She pours her own cup of coffee. “And you know that.” The yield hasn’t been as good as in the past, but it’s an improvement over the long period when there were no eggs at all.
There’s a subtle sound as Johnny leans back slightly in his chair, balancing on the back legs. “Maybe you should do some collectin’ this mornin’.”
The words seem innocent enough. “Johnny,” I begin. “When I was in town yesterday, I specifically stopped by Baldemero’s to pick up two dozen fresh eggs.” I look quickly at Teresa, “Just a few extras until the hens are producing more, darling,” I explain. “You are going to leave some of yours for hatching.”
Teresa nods. “Yes.” Then, frowning. “I saw those eggs, Murdoch. I’m sure they’re in that large bowl on the back shelf in the pantry.”
We always keep our eggs there, I remind myself. The back part of the pantry is windowless, and naturally cool. “Perhaps Maria has forgotten,” I suggest.
Scott seems to find the great egg mystery amusing. “She is getting older, sir,” he smiles; joking, “perhaps even forgetful.”
Johnny comes forward in his chair suddenly. “She is not!”
I reach out, touching Johnny’s arm; sensing the panic. Maria was one of the first people I hired when I came to the estancia, and she remained on after Catherine’s death. She was also at the ranch when Johnny was born and is now his tenuous link to a past he wants desperately to remember.
For Johnny, a reminder Maria is aging is something akin to suggesting she could die. Soon.
“Teresa, please see if you can help Maria.” I make the suggestion softly.
She gets up immediately, leaving the table, but only after giving Scott a dark look clearly indicating he has spoken out of turn.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.” Scott’s apology is sincere. “That was an unkind thing to say. Maria is as sharp as a tack, and I -- for one -- have no desire to get on her bad side.”
Scott, like Johnny, has been on the receiving end of Maria’s own unique form of discipline.
I feel Johnny relaxing beneath my fingers. “I know, brother,” he breathes.
The door from the kitchen opens, and Teresa comes through, Maria right behind her. Teresa is carrying a bowl; an empty bowl. Clutching the clay pot to her chest with one arm, she gestures with the other. “No eggs, Murdoch. Not one.”
Johnny smiles. “Good thing them hens have started layin’ again, huh, T’resa?”
Her face lights. “Scott. Are you coming with me?” All, it seems, is forgiven.
“Right,” Scott answers, and stands up. He pats his shirt pocket, making sure his notepad is in place. Together, he and Teresa head out the door.
Johnny says nothing. He pours himself yet another cup of coffee.
“You aren’t going to join them, Johnny?” I stir my own coffee, moving slightly as Maria refills my cup.
“Nope.” Again, he lowers his head.
I see the corners of his mouth twitching. Even with the dark hair covering his eyes, I can tell he is fighting the smile. “About the early start to your day, Johnny.” I reach out, tousling the hair at his forehead. “Perhaps that will give you time to ride into town with me later. You do need a haircut, son.”
Already, he’s shaking his head. “Don’t need a haircut,” he mumbles. He finger combs his hair, pausing to push away the curls above his right ear.
“We’re going to the barn raising at Ethan Farley’s place on Saturday, John. You will get your hair cut before we go.”
“Murdoch!” Breathless, Teresa has just come back into the kitchen. She’s carrying the bowl as if it were full of treasure. “Look!” Lowering the piece of crockery, she begins pointing. “Every nest, Murdoch! And look at the size of them!!”
The threat of the haircut forgotten, Johnny looks up; the grin plastered across his face. “Whoa!” He picks up one of the eggs, clearly impressed at the size. “Jeez, Scott! Looks like that special feed is workin’! This all of ‘em?”
I take the egg from Johnny, hefting it for weight. It looks familiar.
Smug, Scott reaches out and taps his brother’s head. “No, there were two dozen. Two dozen!” he crows. He smiles across at me, his gaze lifting to Teresa’s face. “We left a half dozen of the larger eggs under two of the hens; for the potential chicks!”
Gingerly, Teresa takes the egg from my hand. She tosses her head, smiling down at Johnny with an ‘I told you so!’ look on her face, and heads for the stove, grateful that Maria has placed the frying pan on the grid. The butter begins to sizzle.
“No, Maria,” Teresa says gently. “Please. I want to cook these eggs!!” Turning, she smiles haughtily at her brother. “So, Johnny, how would you like your eggs?”
Johnny has scooted back in his chair, ever so slightly. He grins up at his sister. “Over easy,” he drawls. “Please.” He’s on his feet now.
We wait. Teresa chooses the largest egg from the bowl. Ceremoniously, she raises her hand; just as Johnny reaches around and snitches a second egg from the bowl. She smacks his hand, and then turns back to her task.
Tap. She strikes the egg against the edge of the frying pan. Nothing happens. She raps it against the pan a second time. Tap-tap. Still nothing.
Johnny is backing out of the kitchen now. “Hey, Scott!” He tosses the egg at his brother, and turns to flee.
In anticipation of a slimy mess that doesn’t come, Scott raises his hands, nimbly backing up; his butt colliding with the edge of the hot stove. Teresa is still trying to crack the egg.
The hard-boiled egg.