Disclaimer: Sam Peeples based the character of Johnny Madrid on ‘a young Billy the Kid’; who serious researchers have determined was even younger than most people assume. Because of that, I write a younger Johnny; a boy still adjusting to his new life as a son and a brother. Some cursing, innuendo. Some liberties with the appropriate time period for the Western Pacific Railroad.
Think of the Maria we saw in “Scarecrow at Hackett’s”.
The storm had blown up and inland from the Baja coast, black clouds roiling on the horizon, hiding the snow-capped mountains beyond Lancer and growing thicker, heavier. Finally, they ripped open, spilling warm spring rain that washed the snow from the peaks, gorging the streams and filling the dry river beds.
A wise man, Murdoch Lancer had known the rains were coming. He could, he told his sons, smell the salty sweetness of the southern Pacific Ocean in the entibiar temprano vientos (early warm winds). So intense was the storm, the gulls had moved inland, scavenging the croplands and the spawning fish that were abundant in the many small lakes and snow-fed streams. The screeching cries of the birds, their relentless diving and swooping among the cattle and the vast remuda had kept the stock in a high state of unrest. He had dispatched his boys and the work crews to check and secure the fence lines, supervising them as they inspected bridgework and the earth-bermed edges of the man-made ponds.
It had been three days, it was still raining, and Murdoch Lancer was on the prowl. He strode into the kitchen, the frown coming as he realized no one but Maria was in the room. Clearing his throat in a vain attempt to swallow his growing bad mood, he addressed the woman; careful to temper his words. “Maria, have you seen Johnny?” The boy had missed a meeting to go over the ranch accounts. Again.
The woman was elbow deep in bread dough. Before she turned around, she picked up the floury mass, deftly slapping it into a large ball. It was, Murdoch thought, as if she were seriously regretting it was just bread she was smacking into shape.
Maria smiled tightly, her hands still busy with the dough as she strangled it and juggled it between her palms. Sighing, she turned back to the floured counter. “Not since lunch, Patrón,” she answered. Her brow crinkled slightly, as if she wanted to say more, but there was hesitancy in her voice. Something was clearly bothering the woman.
Murdoch strode to the stove and helped himself to a cup of coffee from the large enamel pot Maria always kept simmering when the weather was wet and cold. “Is something troubling you, Maria?” he asked softly. He had the uncomfortable feeling she had recently been crying.
The woman sighed, her right hand lifting to toy with a strand of loose hair at her right ear. She had known this man all of her adult life, had been with him through the loss of two wives and the devastating bereavement both times when his sons had been stolen, sharing his grief.
He had been with her, too, through the bad years when her heart had been repeatedly broken by an unfaithful and abusive husband. It was in his arms she had wept at the death of her children.
Later, still in their green years, they had consoled each other.
She cleared her throat, rubbing her flour-caked hands against her apron. “Juanito was not in a good mood when he came in to eat,” she murmured. “I don’t think he was feeling well.” It was a small lie. The boy had come to the table late. Worse, he had come to the table reeking of tequila. She had been very grateful the Patrón had not been in the house for the noon meal. “After he was done eating, after Scott and Teresa left the table, we had…words,” she said finally.
Murdoch had just lifted the cup to his lips. He changed his mind about taking the drink and placed the mug on the counter at his side. Sighing deeply, he considered his next words. Johnny, he knew, harbored a genuine affection for the housekeeper, had actually allowed her into his small world. But there were times when the boy could be infuriatingly flippant with the woman, and sometimes his teasing got out of hand. “Was he being impertinent, Maria?” he breathed, “Because if he was, I will be speaking to him.”
The woman was pouring herself a cup of coffee, lacing it hardily with both sugar and cream. Her jaws tightened slightly as she considered her answer, judiciously avoiding the Patrón’s eyes. For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the slow in-and-out of their soft breathing. “He asked me if we had ever been amantes,” she murmured, raising her eyes to meet the man’s gaze. Johnny’s actual question had been much harsher, vulgar. ¿Jodió jamás usted a mi hombre viejo? (Did you ever fuck my old man?) He had also called her a foul name.
Murdoch’s arms were crossed, just above his belt, and his shoulders tensed. “Maria,” he began. The single word was filled with a multitude of emotion, sorrow, sadness, but – most of all – genuine affection.
“I did not answer him,” she interrupted before he could ask. Her eyes lowered, and her chin was trembling. “Éramos jóvenes, insensatos. Yo no estoy avergonzado de lo que éramos uno al otro, (We were young, foolish. I am not ashamed of what we were to each other)” she whispered.
Murdoch reached out, cupping the woman’s chin in his palm, responding softly in Spanish. “No había nada estar avergonzado de,” he said with great tenderness. “Necesitamos uno al otro. Necesitamos mejorar los corazones, nuestras almas. Tan podríamos pasar.” (“There was nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “We needed each other. We needed to mend our hearts, our souls. So we could go on.”) With his thumb, he gently wiped away the tears that slowly trailed down her right cheek.
Soft laughter came then as the woman impulsively kissed the man’s fingertips, her lips lingering until she suddenly pulled away. Sometimes, men could be such fools. She, on the other hand, had known that what they had experienced was grief-fueled passion, and passion dies.
The loving friendship, however, had endured. “We were fools,” she laughed, the ensuing smile genuine. “Now we are old, and we know better.” She went back to working with the bread dough, the punching less severe now. “I should not have allowed the niño’s question to upset me.”
Murdoch reflected on the words the woman had just spoken. “I won’t lie to him if he asks me,” he said quietly. There would be no point in lying, he realized. The stories – the gossip – had undoubtedly been exaggerated far beyond fact, and there had already been enough half-truths between him and his sons.
Maria was dividing the dough into loaves, filling the pans she would cover with damp muslin until the dough had risen fully and was ready to bake. “He won’t ask you,” she said finally. “He will do as he always does. He will bury it and believe what he chooses. But it will simmer in here,” she tapped her chest, the hollow between her breasts above her heart, “until it boils over.” She sighed. “And then he will throw it back at you, the next time you quarrel.” When there was no response from the man, she speared him with a knowing look. “He will use it as a weapon,” she declared.
The coffee was lukewarm when Murdoch slammed back the entire contents of the mug. “Not this time,” he said. When he saw the woman’s right eyebrow rise, he smiled. “It’s something I’ve learned from Scott,” he continued. “Sometimes a frontal assault is the best strategy, as opposed to a diversionary tactic.” His voice lowered. “We’ll weather this, Maria,” he declared, although there was a measure of doubt in his tone, “just like we’ve weathered all the rest. Prometo. (I promise)” He reached out, his fingers caressing her cheek.
Maria’s face softened. The Patrón was a man of his word, had always been a man of his word.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He pulled the oil-skin slicker up tighter around his neck, feeling the sting of sleet against the back of his neck. The wind was blowing from the north now, and there had been snow again at the higher elevations. He trudged steadily through the layer of mud that had formed beneath the spongy turf. Johnny, he knew, was hiding.
He had checked all of his son’s usual haunts. The tack room, the barn, the collection of out buildings that checkered the landscape close to the great hacienda. Johnny had managed to stay one step ahead of him, skillfully dodging him at almost every turn. Sometimes he wondered if – in the deep recesses of his younger son’s memories – the boy didn’t remember all the hiding places he had discovered as a toddler. Johnny had learned to walk – run –when he was only ten months old, and he had been a master at quick escapes. The thought brought a slight smile to the older man’s face. Johnny had been a precocious child, clever. Sometimes, too clever.
The bunkhouse was the man’s next planned stop. He had discouraged Johnny’s visits to the long, single story building. Although Johnny believed it was some form of discrimination against the vaqueros and the Anglo cowhands – some class distinction between the high and mighty hacendado and the laborers – it was not. The rancher recognized the need of the unmarried men to have a real sense of home, as well as a place with a decent expectation of privacy. And he willingly provided that.
The building was adobe, coated with a thick veneer of mica-speckled plaster, a long rectangular structure divided by a porticoed summer kitchen that could be accessed from both wings. One half of the building served as the crew’s cook house, dining hall and quarters for the cook, the other unit housing the thirty or so full time, single cowhands who were in their mid-twenties or older. There was a living room of sorts, centered around a large wood burning, pot-bellied stove, and then rows of bunks, some stacked two high, others single cots.
Of their own accord, the ranch hands kept their quarters clean and neat. Their tidiness kept the married women who fussed and fretted at bay, leaving the bunkhouse a man’s domain.
The constant rain had kept the crew’s recent activity to a minimum, the only chores the perfunctory work that was a daily necessity. It was now late afternoon and, Murdoch knew, the men would be at quiet pursuits. They would be playing poker and dominoes, or pinochle for those who didn’t indulge in outright gambling. Others would be reading, or writing letters to their sweethearts and families.
And a few – the War veterans, both Confederate and Northern, the lost souls who had failed to put their experiences behind them – would be talking of the next job they would be seeking, and the greener grass on the other side of the fence. These were the men that caused him concern: the restless nomads who always felt for some reason he didn’t completely understand, compelled to move on. They could be persuasive with their boastful talk of adventure, of not being tied down to a place, or being boxed in. And Johnny, he knew, was vulnerable.
Stepping up onto the small covered porch, Murdoch shook the rain from his poncho and knocked on the wide plank portal. Slip Tanner opened the door. A short, compact man with a friar’s fringe of sandy colored hair who was missing his right thumb, Tanner was one of the best ropers Lancer had ever hired. He was also the oldest unmarried man Murdoch employed. “Slip,” he greeted cordially.
Tanner’s grin was instantaneous and sincere. “Boss,” he hailed. He stood back, watching as the tall Scotsman ducked and stepped across the threshold. “Mi casa es su casa,” he joshed.
The smell of strong coffee permeated the room, along with the more subtle odors of pipe and cigarette smoke. Murdoch removed his hat, deftly balancing the Stetson as he reached a long arm outside to dump the excess water from the hat’s brim and crown. He stepped into the room.
Slip reached around the Patrón and shut the door. “Lookin’ for strays?” he smiled.
“Just one,” Murdoch chuckled. His gaze lifted to survey the room. “That one,” he said, nodding to the table at the center of the room. Johnny, he knew, who was seated facing the door, was aware of his presence.
Slip, like the other men in the room, was aware of the Patrón’s tenuous relationship with his younger son. “I think he’s winning,” he confided in a mock stage whisper. “Got a stack of pennies,” he gestured, “this high.”
“Then you won’t miss him,” Murdoch said. His voice rising, he called out to his son. “Johnny?” He hoped his use of the diminutive would avoid a belligerent response. He was wrong.
Johnny answered without looking up from his cards. “Yeah?” To the dealer, he said, “Two,” and discarded accordingly.
Murdoch’s jaws tightened. He was beginning to wish he had sent Scott to fetch the boy. “I need to speak with you, son,” he said. “Privately.”
Johnny picked up the two cards he had been dealt, his expression changing slightly before his eyes hooded and the poker face appeared. “I raise,” he said, counting out five copper coins and shoving them towards the table’s center.
Murdoch crossed the room, mindful he was being watched. His stride measured, he moved to the table to stand at his son’s back, a slight frown coming as he spied the empty shot glass at Johnny’s elbow. “That’s a poor bluff, son,” he said amicably, shaking his head. Johnny held a pair of queens with an ace kicker. “I’ve played with this crew before,” he smiled good-naturedly at the other four men, winking at Frank, “and they usually win.”
Johnny’s shoulders tensed. He was having a difficult time believing his father had ever sat at a poker table playing for pennies, or with these men, for that matter.
Frank’s lips twitched in a tiny smile. “Come to think of it, Mr. Lancer – if I remember it right – you sent us to the poor farm last time.” To Johnny, he said. “I’ll see that raise and bump you a dime, Johnny.” The other players folded.
Frank’s easy grin caused the younger man to frown. Johnny started counting out the coins. “And I’ll call.”
Murdoch watched as Frank fanned his cards across the table. The man had a king high straight. “Read ‘em and weep,” he joshed, leaning back in his chair.
Johnny tossed his cards to the center of the table. He shrugged. “Next hand,” he grinned. The smile faded when he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.
“There isn’t going to be a next hand,” Murdoch said softly. He tempered the statement with a gentle pat and a “Not today.”
Johnny looked up to see Slip Tanner standing beside the table, holding his slicker. The wrangler was smiling his usual cock-eyed smile, the one that always graced his face when he was plying his skills as a roper and leaving the younger men behind sweating in the dust. “Appreciate you could stop by, Johnny,” he grinned affably. “Come again, and next time be sure to bring your Daddy.” When he saw the youth’s jaws tense, he added, “More players, more money.”
It was, the younger man knew, a dismissal. Cipriano was Lancer’s Segundo, but Slip Tanner was the undisputed boss of the bunk house. Shoving his chair back, Johnny stood up. Reluctantly, he reached out, taking the long canvas duster. He followed his father across the room and out the door.
Murdoch waited until they were clear of the bunkhouse before he addressed his son. “You were supposed to be in the Great Room at two, Johnny,” he scolded, “not cavorting around the ranch avoiding your assigned task.”
Johnny’s chin disappeared beneath the deep collar of his slicker. “Wasn’t cavortin’,” he muttered. And then, his voice rising slightly, “Ain’t that a fancy word for whorin’ around?” he asked with mock innocence. He didn’t wait for an answer. “You know, Old Man. Fuckin’ around with the ladies?”
It took every ounce of control Murdoch Lancer possessed to not backhand his son across the mouth. Instead, he simply reached out and cupped the young man’s elbow with his palm, firmly guiding him towards the house. His grip tightened when the boy attempted to pull away. “There’s more to ranching than outside chores,” he said, nodding at Cipriano, who had just come out of his house and was now standing on the small front porch smoking a cigar and staring out into the still falling rain. “You own a third interest in this ranch, Johnny, and you need to learn what it requires to keep Lancer running.”
Johnny laughed, but there was little humor in the sound. “One-third,” he scoffed, “With you callin’ the tune on my share ‘til I turn twenty-one.” He was still for a brief moment. “Don’t see any point in learnin’ somethin’ I can’t use, at least, not yet.”
They crossed the portico together; Murdoch reaching out with is free hand to open the door. “Oh, there’s a great deal you’re going to learn between now and when you reach your majority, son,” he announced, “and the ranch accounts are the least of your worries.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott Lancer, his head down and his eyes focused on the open ledger that was balanced against his left forearm, stepped up into the hallway. His right forefinger was tracing a line of figures. “I’m glad you’re back, sir,” he said without looking up. “I have some questions about…” He stopped when he saw two pairs of muddy boots. “Johnny,” he grinned, raising his head to acknowledge his brother. “Did you get lost in the rain, little brother,” he teased, “or were you out there building an ark?”
Murdoch was arranging his slicker across the drying rack that extended above the shallow clay trough in the hallway. “Your brother got lost in a poker game in the bunkhouse,” he answered. Turning to his younger son, he said “Hang up your coat, Johnny, before you’ve flooded Maria’s clean floor.”
Johnny shrugged out of the duster. He let the coat hang from his crooked fingertips, and then let go. It dropped to the floor, splashing water onto the tile and the plastered walls. “Ooops,” he said, grinning.
“Pick it up, John,” Murdoch ordered. He was tiring of the game. He turned to his elder son. “I need to speak to your brother, Scott, and we’ll need some privacy. We can discuss the questions you have later, after dinner.”
Scott’s mouth quirked downward in a small frown. Johnny was smirking. It was never a good thing when his little brother was smirking. He nodded his head and closed the journal. “I’ll just put this back on the desk, sir,” he said.
Murdoch reached out, taking the ledger. “I would appreciate it, son, if you’d see to it your brother and I are not disturbed.” He cast a sidewise look at his younger boy. “This could take a little time, Scott.”
The doors were closed. Murdoch was standing at his desk. “Sit,” he ordered.
Johnny was doing his usual slow dance around the room, his fingers busy, tap-tapping across everything as he passed. “I been sittin’,” he drawled. He shot his father an insolent grin.
“Well, you’re going to sit again,” Murdoch growled, pointing to one of the chairs sitting in front of his desk. “Now!”
It was, Johnny knew, an order. He hated orders. But what the Hell? If the Old Man wanted to play games, he’d give it a tumble. He sat – slouched – and crossed his legs, his right ankle resting atop his left knee, the forefinger of his left hand spinning the rowel of his silver spur. The disc shimmered beneath the light of the overhead lanterns.
Murdoch was perched on the front edge of his desk, his arms crossed above his waist. The constant ching-ching of the spinning rowel was an annoyance, something he knew Johnny did intentionally when he was expected to sit quietly, but Murdoch chose to ignore it. “We’re going to talk about Maria,” he said.
Johnny’s thumb pinched against his forefinger, momentarily stopping the spur’s quick rotation. He’d been expecting an ass-chewing for the poker game. “Which one?” he drawled, the soft ching-ching coming again as he resumed spinning the large rowel. Maria was a popular name, he mused, right up there with all the other santificados, Juan, José and Jesús. Hell, there were five full-grown Marias at the ranch he knew of, and a couple little ones comin’ up. His chin lifted as he smiled cavalierly at his father. “Let’s see,” he said, raising his fisted right hand. He extended a single finger. “There’s Old…” he drug the word out, “Maria. The one who tends all the women who don’t want Doc Jenkins deliverin’ their babies.” Most of the married women at Lancer were very shy about their bodies. A second finger rose. “Then there was the other Maria…the one Pardee and his men…” the words faded into nothingness as his jaw tensed. “And, o’ course,” he jerked his head in the direction of the hallway leading to the kitchen, “her…(the word came harshly) and then my Mama…
“You remember Mama?” he mocked. “Same name as the ama de casa, the one that’s been here since before I was born. Kinda handy, both of ‘em havin’ the same name when you’re fuckin’ ‘em, not havin’ to worry about callin’ out…” The words died; Johnny’s mouth still open when he saw something in his father’s eyes that instantly stilled him.
Murdoch’s arms were still folded across his stomach, but he had visibly tensed, the muscles in his forearms and shoulders sharply defined against the soft fabric. “John, do you remember what happened the other night at dinner, when we were eating at the Delgados?” he asked. Markedly calm now, he picked up the brass matchbox sitting at his left hip, concentrating on the intricate geometric pattern that had been painstakingly tapped into the brilliant metal. “When Paco was teasing Esperanza?” Esperanza was Cipriano’s eldest daughter, married the previous December and now pregnant. Paco had been badgering his sister about her transition from bride to ‘old woman’, the tongue-in-cheek banter about her growing waist finally producing tears.
Johnny shifted in his chair. Again, the conversation had taken an unexpected turn, and Murdoch’s even tempered response to his snide remarks came as a complete surprise. He slumped down even further in the chair, saying nothing, his fingers busy with the spur.
Murdoch was still toying with the match box. “Do you know where Cipriano and Paco went when they left the table?” His tone remained neutral. “John?”
The ching-ching was more pronounced now, the spur spinning at a greater speed. The boy’s right shoulder hitched. “They went for a fuckin’ walk,” he replied sullenly. He knew damned good and well what had happened after that walk. Paco had told him the next morning, when the chagrined young man jokingly announced he wasn’t going to be doing any chores that required riding a horse. Not for a day or two, anyway.
“Yes,” Murdoch said. He put the match box back on the desk, in the precise spot where it had been before he picked it up. “They went for a walk out to the barn.” The pause was intentional, his voice lowering. “Which is precisely, young man, where you and I will be going if you don’t learn to mind your mouth and your manners.”
Johnny’s head snapped up, his face registering total disbelief. The Old Man had a bad habit of popping him on the ass when he got out of line, and there had been threats of more dire discipline, but he had never taken them seriously. “I ain’t Paco,” he ground out. “I ain’t some kid…”
“Paco is almost a year older than you are, son,” Murdoch interrupted harshly. “I would suggest you remember that.” He let the words sink in. “Now, do you have something you want to ask me regarding Maria?”
Shit. Shit fuck! A direct question was the last thing the youth had expected. Uncomfortable, he again changed position in his chair. Tit-for-tat, he thought, grinning coldly. “‘S’pose she told you I was drinkin’,” he groused. And then, his voice rising, “So did you? Fuck her?” The belligerence was clear in his choice of words, and even more evident in his expression.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. Again, he resisted the urge to slap his son’s face, seriously considering yanking the youth to his feet and marching him upstairs to the bathroom for a good dose of shaving soap. “Not that it’s any of your business, John, but Maria and I had a romantic…” he stressed the word, “relationship. She was, and remains, a very dear friend and a remarkable woman. And she deserves your respect.”
Johnny laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “Yeah. Right.”
Suddenly, Murdoch lunged forward. One hand on each arm of the boy’s chair, his voice harsh, his face was only inches from his son’s. “I want you to hear me, boy, and hear me well! Maria’s husband was a fool. She loved him – God only knows why. He was sunshine and light when he courted her, and as dark as the night when they wed. He beat her so badly her first child was born dead, and two years later when their second child died from cholera, he blamed her for the boy’s death. Through it all she remained faithful to him, running this house and caring for Catherine…” His fists tightened around the wooden armrests, his eyes closing as he fought back the memories. Catherine had been seriously ill the first three months of her pregnancy and Maria had lovingly nursed her back to health.
He composed himself, still keeping the youth trapped between his arms as he resumed speaking. “I am not in the habit, John, of explaining myself to some still wet-behind-the–ears boy who chooses to behave like a petulant, spoiled child, but I promised Maria I would not lie to you. Her husband died. After he was gone, she devoted herself to this house, to this family. She mourned with me when Catherine died, and through the loss of your brother. She was here when I returned from Boston, when I brought your mother home, and rejoiced with me when you were born.” He was quiet a long moment, his tone softening. “When you were taken, it was like losing her own children all over again.”
There was a soft sound a Murdoch drew in a long, quavering breath. “It was Maria and Paul who kept this ranch running while Cipriano and I searched for you, for your mother.” His voice was whisper soft. “It was Maria who was here for me when I came home alone. Every time I came home alone.”
Johnny’s shoulders were pressed solidly against the leather backrest. Stubbornly, he refused to let it go, the anger, the sense of betrayal. “You were still married to Mama,” he hissed.
Murdoch’s face had drained of color, and his teeth were clenched. He moved even closer to his son, his mouth next to the boy’s left ear. The door had been opened, and it was too late now to close it. “My wife…” he took a deep breath against the pain that stabbed at his heart, his fists clenching tighter around the arms of the chair, “…had been deceiving me for more than a year. She was preparing to leave with another man, with no regard at all for the pain it would cause, or for what it would mean for you to be taken away from your home.
“I felt I had lost everything, everything!” He pulled himself erect, still directly in front of his son. “Maria gave me hope. She gave me the strength to continue searching, fighting. For you, for your brother.” His breathing had eased, but the pounding in his ears had not lessened.
Murdoch’s voice was whisper soft when he resumed speaking. “She took care of you after Pardee shot you like you were her own, Johnny,” he said, the censure clear in his voice. “She still takes care of you, every day, just like she takes care of the rest of us.” His head canted as he studied the boy’s face. “I want to know exactly what you said to her in the kitchen. What did you say that made Maria cry?”
Johnny was seriously regretting he was beginning to sober up. He’d been drinking since early in the morning, after he had overheard two of the ranch women who were collecting eggs in the barn – one of them new to the hacienda – nattering on about Maria’s favored status in the Patrón’s grand house. His chin dipped against his chest as he remembered the words he had harshly tossed out at the housekeeper, hearing them in his head: ¿Jodió jamás usted a mi hombre viejo? (Did you ever fuck my old man?)
Murdoch reached out, firmly cupping the young man’s chin in his palm and forcing his head up. “John, what did you say to her?”
Johnny whispered the words. “¿Jodió jamás usted a mi hombre viejo? (Did you ever fuck my old man?)” Aloud, the words sounded even coarser than they had when he had replayed them in his head. He swallowed against the other word that refused to come, the vulgar name he had called the woman. That one he could not bring himself to repeat aloud.
Murdoch’s jaws clenched, and he had crossed his arms again, his fingers kneading the flesh just above his elbows. “You’re going to apologize to Maria,” he said. “You are going to ask her to forgive you.” He was quiet a long moment. “And we will never have this conversation again.”
Stubbornly, Johnny was already shaking his head. There was no fucking way he was going to apologize. Johnny Madrid never apologized, not for anything. And, dammit, he was still angry. He’d known his Mama had other men, hell, there had been so many of them he couldn’t remember all the faces. But she’d done it to survive. His eyes swept the Great Room, taking in the opulence, painfully aware that this is what it had been long before he had been born, before Scott, even. So what the fuck was the Old Man’s excuse for screwing around?
And Mamácita? Goddammit. He’d had her right up there on the pedestal with the Virgin Mary.
His jaws tensed, and he felt something even more intense than the anger. It was the gut-wrenching jealousy and disappointment he had experienced when he was older and watched his Mama’s men come and go; the same sense of betrayal. “No,” he said angrily. He repeated the word. “NO.”
Scott Lancer ghosted into the kitchen, a smile coming as he took a deep breath and inhaled the aroma of freshly baked bread. “Señora,” he greeted softly when the woman turned around. No matter how quietly he entered the woman’s domain, she always sensed his presence.
Maria had just tipped a perfect loaf of golden crusted bread onto the counter. “Scott,” she murmured. “Your sense of smell is as good as Juanito’s.” There was a gentle teasing in her tone.
He nodded, gleefully rubbing his hands together. “And this time I actually got here first,” he grinned. “Does that entitle me to the first slice, smothered in your freshly churned butter?” His fingers marched across the table top towards the prize.
The wooden spoon appeared as if by magic, and she rapped him across the knuckles. “And I suppose you expect honey as well?”
Scott was blowing on the back of his hand, as if his fingers really hurt. “Only if you insist.” His near pout was a remarkable mimic of his younger brother’s.
The woman sighed, audibly. She loved this young man just as much as she loved the other, with the same depth of feeling a mother had for an elder child. Juanito, however, was the baby, the child she had held in her arms. “Sit,” she ordered. Sawing into the loaf of bread, she cut off the very end, a thick, moist, perfectly grained slab that was still steaming, and placed it on a small china plate.
Scott pulled out a chair and sat down, watching as the woman smeared the butter on the bread and topped it with a generous slab of dark comb honey. Not caring about the stickiness, he picked up the warm bread and immediately took a large bite. There was something sinful in the delight he took from the combination of flavors, the salt and the sweetness. He almost felt guilty Johnny wasn’t there to enjoy the feast.
“Juanito will have some with his supper,” Maria said, deftly reading the young man’s mind. She cast a wary eye in the direction of the Great Room.
Scott was licking the honey from his fingers, and looked up to see Teresa coming down the back stairs. “Come spoil your appetite,” he coaxed. They were only an hour away from the evening meal.
Teresa giggled and slipped into her seat. She had been upstairs, going through some old, outgrown clothing she and Maria were going to turn into quilting pieces. “Is Johnny dead?” she teased, taking the slice of bread Maria had prepared for her. “He’s always the first one into the kitchen when Maria’s finished baking.”
Scott contemplated Teresa’s question. “Johnny’s in the Great Room with Murdoch,” he said.
It took a little time for Teresa to swallow her first bite and to wipe the bead of honey that had dribbled onto her fingers. “He didn’t make it back into the house to go over the accounts,” she announced knowingly. Her head canted. “At least they aren’t shouting,” she observed.
“I think I’d be more comfortable if they were,” Scott responded. He got up from his chair and went to the stove, pouring a cup of coffee. He stood, leaning back, his compact rear resting against the edge of the counter. “I think it’s something more than the accounts,” he reasoned. He turned to look at Maria, who was busy at the stove, checking her pot of soup. The woman’s expression hinted at some secret worry, and there was something very sad in her eyes. “María?” he prompted softly.
The woman frowned, the pot lid banging against the kettle as she put it back in place. She said nothing, turning instead to the oven. The subtle odor of bay leaf, onions and roasting pork permeated the room when she opened the door and rearranged the pan.
Scott tried again, using the affectionate diminutive he and Johnny employed when they were wheedling some special treat from the housekeeper. “Mamácita?” Nothing went on in the great house the housekeeper wasn’t aware of, usually before anyone else. He frowned when she remained silent. “Johnny wasn’t drinking when Murdoch found him, was he?” He’d been painfully aware at the noon meal his brother, who normally confined his drinking to the Saturday nights when he helled around in town, had been overindulging.
An all-too-familiar scuffling in the hallway prevented any answer Maria might have been contemplating. Instinctively, Teresa used both hands to secure the small plate that held the remainder of her bread against the table, Scott using one hand to stabilize his coffee mug against the counter. Maria kept a firm hand on the lid to her soup pot as well. They all knew what was coming next. Johnny’s booted feet were thumping hard against the stairs; his bedroom door was flung open and just as quickly slammed shut. The second slam was even louder. The chandelier above the kitchen table chattered and swung.
There was a soft whooshing sound as Scott exhaled. He stood for a long moment, his chin resting against his chest, and then drew himself to attention and strode purposely across the room. “Stay here,” he ordered brusquely when Teresa got up to follow.
He debated for a brief moment, which direction to go, upstairs to his brother’s room, or to his father in the Great Room. Johnny was probably barricaded behind his door, figuring out how the Hell he was going to mend yet another hole in the plaster. Murdoch’s doors – the gates to the lion’s den – were open.
He chose the Great Room, careful to shut the doors behind him as he crossed the threshold.
His hand was steady when he poured the scotch, double measures. “I take it Johnny is still of the opinion that if God intended for him to be writing down sums in a ledger he would have been born with a pencil in his hand.” He picked up the glasses and headed for the desk.
Murdoch’s chair was facing the window, his grey hair a stark contrast above the dark leather. He rocked for a moment and then turned around. “We weren’t discussing the ledgers,” he said, the tension still in his voice. He reached out, taking the proffered drink.
Scott eased into the leather chair in front of the desk. He said nothing, waiting, knowing there was more his father wanted to say.
“Where’s Teresa?” Murdoch asked.
Scott’s glass hovered at his lips and he lowered the tumbler without taking a drink. He rolled the glass between his palms. “I told her to stay in the kitchen,” he answered. “With Maria.”
Murdoch’s shoulders lifted. No point in beating around the bush, he mused. “Maria,” he echoed. He took a long drink from his glass. “Scott, I…”
The blond lifted his head, smiled. “You had a love affair with Maria,” he said softly.
Murdoch’s brows lifted, his forehead wrinkling. There had been nothing judgmental in his son’s tone; in fact he sensed the young man had chosen his words very carefully, purposely avoiding the crude euphemisms bandied about in smoke-filled barrooms and private clubs when men were at play. “And you know this how?”
Scott’s right shoulder lifted slightly. “The presumption here has always been I don’t speak or understand Spanish, Murdoch,” he saluted his father with his glass, “which is totally comprehendible. The Boston dandy with the strange accent, the pale skin and the polite manners.” He risked a smile in spite of the seriousness of the conversation. “Johnny’s suppositions I couldn’t ride, or that I didn’t know one end of a revolver – or a rifle – from the other.” The smile broadened. “Or a steer’s head from its posterior.” He was quiet a moment. “Grandfather sent me to Europe with my tutor when I was fifteen. I learned Spanish there, French, even a smattering of Italian and Portuguese.
“As for the other assumptions regarding what I could or couldn’t do. Well, there was more to War than tailored uniforms and shiny buttons.” Another brief smile, coming as his voice lowered. “The cavalry pushed a little beef, too, when we had them, or found them when we were foraging.” He silently wondered if he would have been hung as a cattle thief if the Confederate’s had caught him. Other foragers had suffered worse at the hands of the enemy. He’d found twelve of his men with their throats cut and their hands severed.
He cleared his throat, his voice deep, reverberating into the quiet. “As for you and Maria. I overheard the gossip between some of the women, not long after Pardee was gone and the families began coming back.” He tipped back his glass, finishing the scotch in one swallow. “It was – quite frankly, sir – is none of my business.”
Murdoch inhaled, slowly. He hadn’t missed the remark about the tour of Europe. The trip had occurred, not coincidentally he was certain, with yet another attempt to regain custody of his elder son. He filed the memory away with all the others. “It was after Johnny was taken,” he said, “when I returned from the third trip into Mexico.” And then, quietly, with a measure of obvious regret, “Maria ended it.”
They sat for a time in companionable silence, toying with their glasses, sharing the quiet but not their thoughts. Murdoch was the first to resume speaking. “Your brother seems to have also heard the talk, although I think more recently. He confronted Maria, shortly after lunch.”
Scott’s chin was still tipped against his chest, his face betraying his surprise. “Johnny questioned her about what he’d heard?”
“Yes,” Murdoch frowned. “Suffice it to say Cipriano fired a ranch hand once for using the same language in front of Elena and Esperanza.” He rose up from the desk, stretching, and headed for the decanter of scotch. He brought the bottle back to the desk, settling again into his chair.
Scott was toying with his glass. “Johnny is very careful around the women, sir, and especially around Maria and Cip’s wife, and, of course, Teresa.” he said, helping himself to a half measure of Glenlivet. “And I’ve never heard him say so much as a damn or hell around any of the children.” He took a sip of the scotch.
Murdoch was studying his son’s face. “Johnny let it slip he had been drinking,” he said. “Not that I’m going to accept that as an excuse for his language or his behavior.” He was quiet a moment. “I just wish he had come to me first,” he muttered, “instead of approaching Maria.”
“Would you have answered him, Murdoch?” Scott asked, meeting his father’s gaze head on.
The intensity in Scott’s eyes caused the older man to briefly look away. “No,” he answered tersely. “I would have told him it was none of his damned business!”
Scott suppressed a grin. “I appreciate your honesty, sir,” he said. He came forward in his chair slightly, his expression changing, becoming more serious. “I was aware when you returned to the house Johnny was baiting you, Murdoch. I just assumed it was his usual reluctance against being house-bound when he prefers being out there…” he nodded towards the French doors and the broad expanse beyond.
“There are times, Scott,” Murdoch’s words came softly, a great sadness in his voice, “when I truly feel Johnny prefers to be anywhere as long as it isn’t here.” With me, he thought. “I realize it’s difficult for him, that he thinks I’ve been unreasonably hard on him, on both of you…”
“Not as hard as you could be,” Scott interrupted gently. He raised his hand, stalling his father’s protest. “There have been times, sir, when you’ve been remarkably tolerant of his blunders,” he hesitated, grinning as his cheeks colored, “as well as my own.
“I know it’s been a struggle for Johnny, sir. I saw boys like him during the War, children, really. Ten and eleven years old, caught up in ‘the cause’, exposed to horrors grown men found abhorrent.” His voice softened, the words filled with compassion.
“Those boys should have been safe at home, on their knees in the dirt playing at marbles, or in school. Certainly not living among grown men who were becoming less human with each battle, where death on a massive scale was a daily occurrence.” He went silent for a brief moment. A great feeling of melancholy swept him, his mood pensive as the bitter memories fingered their way out of the dark closets in his mind where he had placed them. It was the rain, he thought, his eyes lifting to the arched window behind his father’s desk, the gray gloom, the relentless patter of dripping water and the unique wet chill that seemed to permeate his very soul.
“Once,” he began again, now studying the carpet at his feet, “during the winter campaign, we collected the dead. Stacked them, like cordwood. We sat on the bodies, Murdoch, to avoid sitting in the cold mud, and ate our rations as if we were sitting on chairs at a dining room table. And those boys did, too.” His gaze lifted again to the window as he watched the still falling rain, feeling the cold and failing to suppress the shiver. “I’ve always wondered, Murdoch. What became of those children after the War, what happened to them when they finally went home. If they were able to salvage any of their childhood after what they had seen.” His eyes slowly shifted to his father’s face. “I’ve wondered the same about Johnny.”
Murdoch’s head was bowed, his eyelids fluttering against unshed tears. Scott rarely talked about the War, just like Johnny seldom talked about his past. “Man-child,” he said finally, clearing his throat. “That’s what Maria and Cip call your brother. Because he saw too much, too soon.” He searched his son’s face, the young man’s eyes, recognizing the phantoms that lingered behind the pale orbs. “Like you, Scott.”
The younger man nodded his head a single time. “In some ways,” he conceded. “But I was much older than Johnny when I picked up a gun. I didn’t grow up in a place or a time where I had to make that choice as a child.” He inhaled, deeply, pulling himself more erect in the chair. “So the question now, sir, is where do we go from here?”
Murdoch considered the question, inwardly amazed at his elder son’s resiliency. Both of his sons had an amazing capacity to deal with misfortune, to bounce back. “He’s going to make things right with Maria,” he announced, “or deal with the consequences.”
Scott’s lips quirked up in a quick smile. “I’m sure Cipriano would be more than happy to share his insights regarding how to deal with recalcitrant sons,” he teased. He had been with Murdoch and Johnny when they had dined with the Delgados. He quickly sobered. “Cip doesn’t know about Johnny’s confrontation with Maria does he?” The Segundo and his wife were extremely close to the housekeeper, considered her a part of their extended family.
Murdoch shook his head. “If Cipriano was aware of what occurred, Paco wouldn’t be the only one avoiding any work that required him to ride.” He was quiet a moment. “I told your brother he and I were going to be taking a similar walk if he didn’t learn to mind his manners and that mouth.”
The blond levered himself up from his chair. He leaned forward and stood for a time, his long fingers drumming against the top of the desk as he considered his father’s words. “Would you really do that, sir?” he asked.
“I’m not accustomed to making promises I don’t keep, Scott.” Murdoch reached out, his fingers closing around his empty whisky glass, his forefinger slowly circling the rim. “If he continues to behave like a belligerent young fool, he’s going to be treated like one. And if that requires a session in the barn with my belt, then so be it.”
Scott pulled himself erect. “And the rest?” he said. When he saw his father didn’t understand, he continued. “Johnny’s experienced far more than most boys his age. He’s accustomed to doing pretty much as he pleases, when and where he pleases. He’s like a colt that has found a low spot beneath a fence, a place to roll free, and his first instinct is going to be to run.”
Murdoch was silent for a long moment. “Then we’ll just have to catch him and bring him back,” he said finally.
The sound of the door opening and a light tapping at the arched framework caused both men to look up. Teresa was standing at the threshold. “Maria said to tell you dinner is ready,” she said softly, nodding towards the dining room. She lingered, one hand toying with the long curl at her shoulder. “Should I get Johnny?”
Using both hands, Murdoch shoved his chair away from the desk. “No, darling. Johnny won’t be joining us for dinner.” He turned to his elder son. “Scott?”
He was waiting. Johnny was sprawled out on his bed, his senses tickled by the aroma of food that had crawled up the stairs and was now creeping beneath his door. His stomach rumbled in anticipation, a wave of tequila causing a bit of a tremor that rumbled up his gullet to escape in a bile producing burp. Second-hand Cuervo didn’t taste or smell that great on the return trip.
Good thing Scott will be coming up soon, he thought, grinning. Big brother was pretty good at pilfering the leftovers. He turned over onto his back, wincing a bit as his stomach seemed to be reluctant to accommodate the switch in position. He rubbed his belly to soothe the queasiness, his hand coming to rest as his fingers drummed against his shirt. Damn. The sound was the same as when he thumped his fingers across the top of an empty wooden barrel.
The soft snick of the door latch prompted him to raise his head, and he watched as the door opened. Scott’s slim body was haloed by the light from the hallway as the man crossed the threshold. “What took you so long?” he groused, pivoting off the bed to sit up.
Scott shut the door behind him, leaning against the textured wood as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Some light would help,” he said.
Johnny used his arm to swipe some of the clutter from his bedside table. There was a small ceramic match holder next to the lamp, and he fished out a stick, using his thumb to scratch the sulfur-tipped spar. There was a scraping sound as he lifted the glass globe and touched the Lucifer stick to the damp wick. It took a little time to adjust the kerosene soaked cord. “So what’d you bring me?”
Scott raised his empty hands. “Nothing,” he replied. He saw the pout and knew his brother was going to be cranky.
Johnny was on his feet, intent on the hunt, certain his brother was toying with him. Scott had a shitty sense of humor sometimes. “You leave it in the hallway?”
“I didn’t bring anything,” Scott answered.
It was obvious from Johnny’s posture he was not happy. “And why the hell not?” he sniped.
Scott crossed the room. Without being invited, he sat down on the only upholstered chair in the room, the one that had been put in place for Murdoch when Johnny was recovering from Pardee’s bullet. “Because, little brother, you are not ill, you are not injured, Murdoch hasn’t banished you from the table for some minor faux pas,” he paused to take a breath, “and because we need to talk.” He pointed to the bed. “Sit.”
Johnny remained standing. His arms were crossed in his usual tight self hug, his fingers bunched in the fabric of his upper sleeves. It was clear from his petulant expression he was thinking, cataloging his options. He risked a look in his brother’s direction but Scott’s face was totally benign, his countenance betraying nothing. He decided his best shot was to go on the offensive. “The Old Man tell you about him and Maria?”
Scott was leaning back in the chair, giving the appearance he was totally relaxed. His eyes told another story. “Sit down, Johnny.” The words came softly, but they were pure steel. “Now.”
Something in Scott’s demeanor – his eyes – prompted the younger man to obey. Not that he was happy about it. He plopped down on the bed, his fingers curled around the edge of the mattress, poised to run.
Scott waited. Johnny was coiled like an over-wound watch, the soft light from the lantern casting shadows across his face that caused his features to harden, age. The old wariness, the suspicion, was back. It was, Scott knew, Johnny’s defense against a world that had treated him harshly, had caused him immeasurable pain.
Leaning forward in the chair, Scott made a conscious effort to put himself in a position that would keep him eye level with his sibling. “In answer to your question: yes, Murdoch told me about his relationship with Maria,” he began, raising his hand to stop the argument he knew was coming. “They were lovers. It began well after your mother left. It ended. Get over it.”
Short, sweet and to the point.
“Just like that,” Johnny ground out, his fingers fisting against the mattress.
Scott nodded. “Just like that,” he echoed. He reached out, laying a long-fingered hand on his brother’s left knee and felt the tension. But Johnny didn’t pull away. “They were young, Johnny. They had both suffered terrible loss. Maria’s husband and children were dead, Murdoch…” He hesitated, the words fading.
“You knew,” Johnny whispered. The words were laced with recrimination.
“I’d heard the rumors,” Scott responded. “When you were recovering, and the families started coming back to Lancer.”
Johnny shoved his brother’s hand away from his knee. “And you didn’t tell me? You didn’t say one fuckin’ thing…”
Scott took a deep breath. “I’m not in the habit of repeating idle gossip, brother,” he interrupted. “And, frankly, it was none of my damned business. Or yours.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Johnny shot back, angrily. “He’s got no right…”
“It’s past,” Scott cut in. “It can’t be undone, it can’t be changed. All we can do is move forward, one day at a time.”
Johnny was shaking his head. “It ain’t past,” he said stubbornly. “I heard Inez tellin’…”
Scott Lancer was usually the epitome of good manners, but not here, and not now. Once again, he interrupted his brother. “Ah, yes,” he ground out. “Inez.” The woman was new to Lancer, Pablo Rangel’s bride of six weeks. She was an attractive woman, slightly older than her husband, and she was trouble. She was also a flirt, and already disenchanted with being the wife of a vaquero. Scott wasn’t shy in his assessment. “Did it ever occur to you, brother, that Inez might be jealous of the fact Maria lives here in the hacienda and is considered part of the family? Or that Señora Rangel enjoys planting the seeds of discontent in the futile hope she can advance her own agenda?”
Johnny was frowning. “Goddammit, Scott. Could you maybe just once speak fuckin’ English?”
Scott’s face expression mirrored his brother’s. “You know precisely what I’m saying,” he chided. Johnny was very good at playing dumb when it suited his needs, or as a diversion, like a street-wise kitten toying with a tamed bird. But the ploy wasn’t going to work, not this time. “I take it you overheard Inez and one of the other women gossiping in the barn, where the two of you have been playing your little games of hide and seek for the past two weeks.”
Surprised, the younger man’s head suddenly came up, his shoulders bunching. He wasn’t exactly proud of the mess he had gotten himself into, something that had started with a little harmless flirtation. Hell, he flirted with all the women on Lancer. “I ain’t messed with her, Scott,” he mumbled. “Not like that.”
The blonde’s right eyebrow arched, and he lounged back in the chair. “Really?” he smirked, the single word drawn out and laced with sarcasm. “That’s not what I heard.” He tented his hands, his long fingers tapping in cadence one-two-three-four against each other. “Rumor has it, from the amount of heat the two of you were generating up in the hayloft, we’re fortunate the barn didn’t burn down.”
Johnny’s cheeks colored, his mouth opening as he started to speak. It dawned on him then, what it was his older, wiser brother was pulling. “So what you’re tellin’ me is I’m bein’ a pendejo (asshole)?” he breathed. “Listenin’ to people tellin’ tales instead of checkin’ it out?” He averted his eyes. “Judgin’ Murdoch and Maria without…”
“… without thinking it through, and then compounding that error by getting drunk and losing your temper?” Scott finished. The forefinger of his right hand was now making slow circles on the arm of the chair. “You’re a better person than that, brother. Most of the time,” he amended, smiling.
Johnny’s right leg was dancing, the usual sign he had been sitting too long. “That first mornin’, Scott, when I told you I don’t give anyone too much credit…” his brow furrowed.
“Because it saves you a lot of disappointment?” Scott asked softly.
“Because it saves a lot’a hurt,” Johnny responded, his voice a near whisper. “Jesus, Scott. Murdoch and Maria?” The frustration – the letdown – was in his words and his face.
Scott’s left hand went to his mouth as he fought a smile. He’d seen the same look of disappointment on a child’s countenance one Christmas when a friend’s little brother had learned there was no Santa Claus. “Johnny,” he began, “they’re human beings, not saints. They were hurting, in pain.” He paused. “They needed each other.”
Johnny was shaking his head. “He was still married to Mama,” he declared stubbornly.
“And your mother was still married to Murdoch,” Scott retorted. He was, he knew, trespassing into very dangerous territory. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “She betrayed him in the worst way imaginable with no regard for the future, your future. What was Murdoch supposed to do when he couldn’t find her? Shut himself up in this house, close his heart to everything, to everyone?
“Maria was there for him. They were there for each other.” He was quiet a moment. “Whatever they were to each other, Johnny, it gave them the strength to go on.” His voice lowered, the next words coming softly, filled with compassion. “I want you, brother, to think for a moment, to consider how many people would have suffered if Murdoch had simply given up.” He gestured with his hand, encompassing the whole of Lancer, the room they were sitting in and the broad landscape beyond the windows. “Cip, his family, and all the others who live and work here on the estancia. The people we do business with in Morro Coyo, Green River and Spanish Wells. Where would they be, Johnny, where would you be, if Murdoch hadn’t found the strength to go on?”
Johnny sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, slowly. He knew exactly where he would have been. In a ditch, with ants crawlin’ across his eyeballs. “I didn’t tell the Old Man everything I said, Scott,” he said finally. “I called her a name. I called her a puta.”
“Johnny!” The single word burst from Scott’s lips as he collapsed back into the chair, the shock – the disappointment – clear in his face, his eyes. It took him a little time to recover. Johnny had a true talent for using words as a weapon, generally employing them to bait an opponent, but this… Levering up from his chair, Scott reached out, grabbing his brother by the arm and lifting him bodily from the bed. “You’re coming with me,” he said, brusquely.
The youth felt himself being dragged toward the door. It never ceased to amaze him, the incredible strength and power his elder brother possessed, especially when Scott was angry. And Scott, he knew, was pissed. “Where we goin’?”
“Murdoch and Maria were having coffee in the kitchen when I came up here,” Scott gritted. “You and I, little brother, are going to join them, and you are going to make this right.” He charged across the threshold, pulling Johnny along as he headed for the stairs.
Johnny felt his heart drop to his belly. Facing the firing squad in Mexico hadn’t been as intimidating. Hell, he had reached the point where the idea of having it all end, for life as he knew it to finally be over, was a relief. He was sick of the loneliness, tired of the feeling there was nothing beyond the next hill but another hill, one more place he didn’t belong or want to be.
He grabbed at the balustrade at the top of the staircase, his fingers closing tightly around the dark oak. “I can’t do this,” he gasped.
Scott grabbed his brother’s wrist and wrenched it free. “You can and you will,” he declared firmly.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The kitchen, Murdoch mused, was still – after all these years – a sea of tranquility in the sometimes turbulent waters of a life that had been all too often disrupted by storms of despair and bottomless whirlpools of broken dreams. There was warmth here, not just of the body, but of the soul. And Maria provided that warmth.
His gaze was locked on the woman, who was quietly sipping her coffee, taking in the sweet features of a woman whose physical attractiveness had been enhanced by age. Now, in the pale glow of the overhead lanterns, he saw her as she had been all those years ago. The muted light had softened the lines in her face, around her eyes.
She had never been vain about her appearance, and there was a regal beauty in the way she carried herself, as if she were unaware of the fact she was truly an attractive woman. High cheekbones, full lips and fawn-colored skin set off her dark hazel eyes, the irises amber-flecked and bright with life. Her face was heart shaped, crowned by dark hair that was only now beginning to show small slivers of silver, the thick curls piled high atop her head.
And when she moved… Murdoch smiled at the thought. She had the grace and quiet elegance of a cat when she walked, and he was reminded of a great panther he had stalked one winter in the high country. So perfect was its form he had been unable to kill the feline, satisfied the animal had taken the lame and the weak and he had let it go. He had watched the cat until it disappeared into the snowy twilight, never regretting his decision to let it remain free.
The sound of booted feet descending the back stairwell roused the big man from his musings, and he turned slightly in his chair. Johnny had reached the bottom of the stairwell, Scott right behind him.
Scott was the first to speak, his deep voice resonating in the narrow stairwell. “My apologies for the intrusion, sir,” he began. “Maria.” He smiled at the woman. “Johnny has something he needs to say,” he hesitated, “to both of you.”
Johnny felt his brother’s hand on his right shoulder, and leaned briefly into the older man’s touch. His eyes closed against what he was seeing. It seemed so natural, his father and the woman sitting companionably in the quiet, as comfortable together as…
…as a husband and wife.
The impact of what he was feeling tore at the young man’s soul, the heartbreaking tug of would have, could have, and should have been he had dreamed of all of his life. But there was anger, too, simmering just beneath the surface, as well as hatred and suspicion. The constant companions of his childhood.
There was an awkward silence, broken by the sound of a chair scraping across the tiled floor. Murdoch Lancer rose up from his seat. He moved, not toward his sons, but to stand behind Maria’s chair, his hand gently going to her shoulder. She reached up to lay her fingers across the man’s before dropping her hand to her lap.
Johnny had seen the move, the brief caress. He swallowed against the bile that rose at the back of his throat, struggling against the anger. And then he looked into the woman’s face, her eyes.
He saw it then. Love. Not for his father, he suddenly realized. No, Maria was looking directly at him, at his brother. The tenderness in the woman’s eyes, the depth of longing and the wet shine of unshed tears took his breath away.
Maria’s face was haloed by the soft glow of the overhead lanterns, prompting a memory that often haunted Johnny’s dreams. He had been young, very young, and had snuck into a church seeking warmth. There had been a fresco on the wall, a rendering of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap. The look of adoration on the Madonna’s face as she gazed at her Son had filled him with a yearning that had caused his child’s heart to ache.
The look on Maria’s face now, right now, was exactly the same.
Johnny felt Scott’s hand slip from his shoulder to the small of his back and stepped forward in response to the subtle nudge. “Señora,” he began, hoping to convey the proper amount of respect, his voice whisper soft and filled with remorse.
Scott remained standing where he was at the foot of the stairs. He watched as his brother crossed the room, touched to his very core as Johnny went down on one knee in front Maria’s chair. He could see his brother’s lips moving, aware the younger man was speaking Spanish and was tempted to move closer, changing his mind as his gaze lifted to his father’s face. It was clear from Murdoch’s expression that whatever Johnny was saying, it appeared his brother had found the right words.
And then Murdoch’s jaws suddenly tightened, his eyes narrowing as Johnny said something that caused an instant flash of anger.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny looked up, immediately aware of his father’s sudden change in posture. The Old Man had suddenly wrapped his arms across his broad chest, his fingers flexing tightly against his biceps. A myriad of emotions had swept Murdoch’s face when he heard the word puta; shock, frustration and then outright fury.
Not that the Old Man wasn’t entitled to his anger. Quickly, Johnny bowed his head, his dark eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks as he took yet another quick breath. “Lo siento,” he murmured. “Perdóneme, por favor, Señora.” (Please forgive me.) The words, spoken with profound sincerity, were whisper soft but seemed to fill the room.
Maria reached out, her right hand hovering above the young man’s head. And then, her fingers entwining in the dark curls, she bent forward, her lips brushing the boy’s right ear as she spoke. “Te quiero, muchacho. Tú eres mi hijo perdido, encontrado. Usted y su hermano - su padre - son mi familia, la familia de mi corazón.,” she murmured, the words clearly audible in the evening quiet. (I love you, boy. You are my lost child, found. You and your brother – your father – are my family, the family of my heart.)
Johnny swallowed, hard. He reached up with his left hand, lacing his fingers within the woman’s but unable to respond in kind with words. Madrid was still there, lurking in the dark place that was still part of his soul, callously warning him to guard his heart.
Pulling himself upright, Johnny shook the thought away. He was still holding Maria’s hand when he looked up at his father. Jesus, the Old Man looked as if he could chew nails and spit bullets. Well, no point in dragging it out. “I screwed up, Murdoch.” He inhaled and just as quickly let it out. “Sorry.”
Murdoch nodded his head curtly, his posture changing, but only slightly. And then he pulled himself completely erect. “Come with me,” he ordered. “You and I, John, are going to take a walk.”
Maria quickly came to her feet, her hand darting out to rest on the big man’s arm. “Murdoch,” she murmured, “…please.” His only response was an abrupt shake of his head.
It was, Scott realized, the first and only time he had ever heard the woman call his father by his Christian name.
It had finally stopped raining. In the beginning bloom of an early spring, the landscape spread out towards the mountains in a carpet of bright green, broken only by deep browns of the recently plowed fields, ribbons of small sprouts poking up from the earth and reaching towards the heavens. Gold tinged clouds misted above the mountains, the setting sun radiant against the red sky, and there was a hint of a rainbow on the far horizon.
So much for a fuckin’ rainbow meanin’ good luck, Johnny thought darkly. The slurp of his boots in the inch-thick mud only added to his grim mood.
His first instinct had been to simply take off, to make a break for it when they came out the door. It had been a short-lived hope. The Old Man had snatched him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him up short. Hurt like hell, too, what with the handful of hair the old bastard had grabbed. The memory was enough to prompt the youth to rub the back of his neck.
He looked up, surprised to see Cipriano standing just outside the barn. The Segundo had just fired up a brown-papered cigarillo, twin streams of blue smoke coming from the man’s nose as he exhaled. Cip, Johnny realized, did not look like a happy man.
Murdoch nodded in greeting to his friend. “Cip,” he said, reaching out to accept a proffered smoke. He turned to his son. “Go,” he said, gesturing towards the open barn door with a single tip of his head.
Johnny balked. He was immediately aware of how Cipriano had moved forward to stand directly beside him. The Segundo’s expression was grim, the warmth that usually radiated from the man’s brown eyes replaced by a dark look of severe disapproval that spoke louder than words. He knows, Johnny speculated, hoping he was wrong. He tried to meet the man’s harsh scrutiny, swallowing hard as he failed and his gaze dropped to the mud at his feet.
“¿Necesita usted encontrar de ayuda la manera, chico?” (Do you need help finding the way, boy?), Cipriano inquired, his tone austere.
The youth shook his head. “No, Tío,” he answered without looking up. Fists clenched at his sides, the young man headed for the barn.
Murdoch waited for his Segundo to speak. Cipriano, he knew, had something on his mind.
The foreman took another long drag on the small cigar, his eyes narrowing as he removed the smoke from his mouth to study the smoldering tip. “Elena was in the pantry when Juanito spoke to Maria,” he began. “She heard what the boy said. She stayed with Maria for a time, and then came to find me.” His voice lowered. “I was looking for Juanito when I saw you going to the barracón (bunkhouse).”
It was clear from the Segundo’s tone, Murdoch knew, what would have occurred if Cipriano had found Johnny first. The thought prompted a wry smile. He had been surrogate father to Cipriano’s sons Mateo and Paco when they were growing up, was, in fact, their compadre (godfather). More than once, in their father’s absence, he had called the boys to task, disciplined them for their mischief. Cipriano had done the same with Johnny when the boy was a toddler, before Maria had taken the child away.
That’s how it worked at Lancer, Murdoch pondered. They were, truly, a family, la familia. And they took care of their own.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “I’ll be sure to remind John how fortunate he is I found him first,” he said. He smiled, hesitating as he knocked the dead ash from his small cigar. “Although he may think otherwise after I’ve finished with him.”
Cipriano laughed, the sound rolling up from deep within his chest. “Estoy amigo seguro y viejo,” he said, reverting to Spanish, “tendré muchas oportunidades en el futuro para probar de otro modo. ¡Quizás la próxima vez él y comprometer de Paco en uno de sus concursos insensatos nosotros tenemos prohibido y yo los he agarrado desprevenido!” (I am sure, old friend, I will have many opportunities in the future to prove otherwise. Perhaps the next time he and Paco engage in one of their foolish contests we have forbidden and I have caught them unawares!”) He laid his broad hand on Murdoch’s shoulder and gave it a solid pat. “Vaya con Dios, amigo,” (Go with God, friend,”) he encouraged, feigning solemnity as he gestured towards the barn.
Murdoch pinched out the remainder of his smoke and then ground the stub into the mud beneath the toe of his boot. There was, he knew, no point in avoiding the inevitable. His son had crossed the line, that invisible thread marking the boundaries between parent and child. And the boy had been testing those fragile limits from the very first day. “No more,” he murmured.
There was a damp coolness in the air that had penetrated the barn, steam rising from the compacted layers of bedding littering the dirt floor. The mist was filled with the subtle, combined aroma of alfalfa, molasses and corn, and the fresh droppings of the stabled horses, a perfume for someone who craved the scent of living things.
Johnny Lancer was one of those someone’s who loved and needed the comfort found in familiar things, the sights, sounds and scents he remembered from his childhood. Almost from the beginning – and especially after Murdoch had dug Pardee’s bullet from his back and he had gradually returned to the world of the living – the barn had become his place of sanctuary. He found solace in the quiet, consolation and escape from the family he craved but desperately feared.
It was, he knew, because he simply didn’t know how to play this game, to be a part of a whole that too often had eluded him during his childhood. For him the concept of family was as delicate and as intangible as the translucent rainbow on a dragonfly’s sun-kissed wings, something to behold from a distance in the sure and certain knowledge that if he attempted to grasp it, its beauty would be destroyed. And by his own hand.
He sighed. Scott made it all seem so damned easy. His Bostonian brother had stridden boldly into this new life straight-backed and unyielding as he had entered the Great Room that first afternoon when Murdoch had called out “It’s open.” Scott had taken the lead as if it was the most natural thing in the world, some pre-conceived duty to set straight the path for his newly discovered younger sibling. And he hadn’t backed off from the Old Man, either. There had been no dancing, not one indication Scott was going to yield to the older man’s harsh order. The curt ‘Will I?’ in response to Murdoch’s ‘You’ll do as you’re told!’ had pretty much set the stage for what still remained, Johnny mused, a hombre al hombre (man to man) connection. Far be it for me to ruin a family reunion, Scott had smiled, more bemusement than sarcasm in his tone.
A belligerent frown marred Johnny’s face, his brow furrowing as he considered his own relationship with his father, and he kicked at a dried horse apple, sending it flying down the dim corridor. He and the Old Man had butted heads from the get go, exactly what he had envisioned for their first meeting. Secretly, he had hoped the Old Man would push back, so he could do what he had always intended: gut shoot the old bastard and watch him die a slow agonizing death. It only seemed fair, considering what he believed had happened to his Mama.
But something had stopped him, a sudden unbidden memory that had torn at that part of his heart he so carefully guarded. It had hit him with the impact of a .44 slug to his back, the moment Murdoch Lancer had risen from his chair to tower above him like a great mountain. His first instinct had been genuine fear, something not entirely foreign to Johnny Madrid. Fear had been the great motivator that had kept him alive as a young child, fear and – later – the need for retribution.
The dread had been replaced with an immediate remembrance that the same giant of a man who had put him on the defensive with the simple statement ‘you have your mother’s temper’ had once (although he would deny remembering it if ever asked) soothed away the pain of his scraped knees and pinched fingers.
His responses to the Old Man’s words after that had been laced with sarcasm, his own way of going on the offensive. ‘So, then, it’s the ranch your worried about.’ The Patrón had retaliated with his speech about how he ‘loved this ground more than anything God had ever created’ and how he had a gray hair for every good blade of grass…
Yep. It had pretty much gone all downhill from there. He snickered. The Old Man had a lot more gray hair now, and it didn’t have one damned thing to do with the damned grass.
A soft whicker from the first stall on his right roused the young man from his dark reverie. The quiet pawing came next, growing louder as the palomino snorted its discontent and butted against the gate. Next came the up and down thudding as the horse used its nose to work at lifting the latch.
Johnny moved quickly to prevent the animal’s escape. He pushed the gate closed, securing it in place with a doubled-over piece of baling twine. “Shouldn’t a taught you that one, amigo,” he murmured, reaching out to stroke the palomino’s nose. “Scott would be laughin’ his ass off if you got loose and ended up takin’ a mud bath out there, and me spendin’ all night puttin’ you right.” He nodded towards the open barn door, tensing as he spied his father and Cipriano.
It appeared the older men had just concluded their conversation, worse, that they had reached some kind of accord. Johnny’s eyes closed as his chin dipped against his chest, and he took a deep breath. Like a dying man, his past – at least all the things that had transpired during the long day – kaleidoscoped across his mind, ending with the memory of something Scott had said during their talk in his bedroom. ‘It’s past. It can’t be undone, it can’t be changed. All we can do is move forward, one day at a time.’
Well, fuck that. Big brother wasn’t the one standing in the barn waiting for the Old Man to tear him a new one. His decision made, he moved to the side of Barranca’s stall and grabbed hold of his saddle and blanket.
“Planning on going somewhere, son?” Murdoch Lancer’s voice rumbled into the quiet, his tone deceptively mild.
Johnny froze, his left hand knotted around the pommel of his saddle, his right fisted against the cantle. Knowing it would piss the Old Man off, he answered without turning around, concentrating on smoothing the edges of the heavy saddle blanket. “Sure in hell not plannin’ on stayin’ here,” he drawled, his right hip cocking as he shifted his weight. He started to lift the saddle and blanket away from the railing.
His intention had been to wait until the exact moment when he knew his father’s jaws would tense, timing his turn-about to that precise second just prior to the usual explosion. He was good at that, lighting the Old Man’s fire, and the thought prompted a sly smile.
Suddenly, without warning, he felt his father’s broad left hand close around the nape of his neck. The next thing he knew he was being propelled forward, a soft oof coming as his upper body was abruptly cradled against the saddle, firmly held in place by the sheer power of his father’s strong left arm.
“I would suggest, John,” Murdoch breathed, bending close to whisper into his son’s ear, “you rethink those plans.” With his free hand, he unbuckled his belt.
There was a brief, very brief, struggle as the tune-caller got down to business. Johnny Madrid Lancer was about to learn a brand new dance.
“Here.” Murdoch extended his hand, offering the freshly wrung out piece of toweling to his son. He had already placed the basin of warm water atop the large bale of twine-bound straw where the boy was now sitting.
Wary, Johnny looked up at his father. He didn’t know what pissed him off the most, that his Old Man was standing there looking like nothing had happened, or that this was the second time in the space of less than an hour his father had managed to come up on him without warning. Reaching out, he took the proffered cloth, grateful for the warmth when he mopped his face.
He dropped the cloth back into the basin and played with it a moment before finally speaking. “This ain’t the part where you tell me that ass… butt beatin’ I just got hurt you a lot more than it hurt me, is it?” he muttered.
There was a soft chuffing sound as Murdoch succeeded in stopping the near laughter. “No, son,” he replied, keeping his tone neutral. “If I said that it would be admitting I hadn’t done the job right and we’d have to begin again.” Firmly cupping Johnny’s chin against his palm when his son attempted to look away, he made eye contact with the boy. “Is that what you want, son, for me to try again?”
Unable turn his head, Johnny reached sideways for the basin, swirling the piece of toweling in the now tepid water. Wringing it out a single time before lifting it, dripping, away from the washbasin, he took another swipe at his face. The ruse worked, and his father let go of his chin. “Nope,” he said finally, the words whisper soft. “Don’t think I want to be goin’ there again.”
Murdoch gestured for his son to scoot over and then sat down, the chipped porcelain bowl between them. Even sitting, he still towered over the boy. Elbows resting atop his knees, his hands clasped together, he contemplated the straw littered floor. “When you were a toddler,” he began, “I worried that you weren’t as quick to speak as some of the other children here.” He laughed. “Not that you were quiet. No, you seemed to live in a little world of your own where you preferred mimicking the animals.” A smile touched his lips, lingered. “You were quite convincing, too. Horses, dogs, cows, the cats.” The memory of his son hiding in the house and mewling like a starving kitten caused the smile to broaden. “Maria…Mamácita…” he clarified, “used to run herself ragged trying to find animals that were never there.”
Johnny shifted, drawing his legs up as he leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed atop his knees, his chin resting on his forearm. “This goin’ somewhere, Murdoch?” he asked, the words sharper than he intended. He was always uncomfortable when someone brought up his past, especially the childhood he remembered only as fragments that had come to him in dreams while he was recovering. What troubled him most was that the memories had actually been more good than bad, another painful reminder his mother had lied.
Murdoch decided to ignore his son’s tone. “When you did finally begin to speak,” he continued, “your first – and favorite – word was ‘no’,” he risked a sideways look at the youth, “to everything. When you were put down for your nap, told to eat your vegetables,” funny how that hadn’t changed, Johnny still balked at anything that was even remotely green unless it was a chili, “or to mind your manners.”
Even straw, Johnny noted, had a subtle, unique sound when disturbed. He shifted slightly on the packed bale, plucking a long stem from beneath the twine and working it between his fingers before slivering it with his thumb nail. “S’pose you beat my ass back then, too,” he murmured.
The older man considered his words carefully before replying. “You were disciplined. When you were being stubborn, when your temper got the best of you and you threw a tantrum and held your breath until you turned blue. When you refused to mind what you were told.” He was quiet for a brief moment. “And I doubt that a few well-measured swats across your flannel-diapered bottom would qualify as a beating.”
Johnny snorted his disbelief. There sure in hell hadn’t been anything well-measured in the ‘swats’ the Old Man had just delivered. “Ain’t wearin’ diapers now, Murdoch,” he murmured, his brow furrowing. He sighed. “I made it right with Maria,” he said, wondering why the apology hadn’t been enough, “told her I was sorry.
“Sure in hell didn’t see this comin’…” he waved his hand at nothing in particular, the frown turning into a pout.
“Your apology to Maria was quite eloquent, John.” There was a slight pause. When Murdoch resumed speaking, his voice had taken on the no-nonsense tone he used when he meant business. “However, while she is willing to forgive you, the fact remains your behavior – what you said to her – was inexcusable.” He took a deep breath. “None of which would have occurred if, instead of drinking and gambling in the bunkhouse, you had been where you were supposed to be. In the Great Room working with Scott.”
Jaws tensing, Johnny swallowed, hard. “Yeah. Good Old Saint Scott,” he groused. Big brother sure had an annoying habit of doing what was expected. He lifted his hand and gave a mock salute. “Sorry I ain’t as perfect as the tin soldier,” he clipped.
Murdoch levered himself up from the straw bale, stretching a bit to ease the tightness in his back. He turned slightly, eyes narrowed as he surveyed his youngest. “Your brother is far from perfect, John. You aren’t the only one who excels at testing the limits of my ‘fragile paternal patience’.” He’d overheard some of Scott and Johnny’s recent conversations, feeling not one mote of guilt over his surreptitious eavesdropping. The look of surprise on the boy’s face was worth the confession. He decided to give his son a small gift. “And don’t think for a minute I haven’t been tempted to call him to task for his transgressions.”
Johnny perked up a bit at his father’s comment. “You sayin’ he might end up ‘takin’ a walk’?” he grinned, hopeful. Not that he thought it would ever happen.
“That remains to be seen,” Murdoch answered drolly, his mouth twitching as he fought the smile.
The answer seemed to satisfy the youth; but only briefly. “Still don’t explain why you blistered my ass,” he said. He ducked his head. “Most that’s happened before when I got you piss… mad…is that you’d holler some; maybe pop me one with your hand and then think up a whole list of shit chores for me to pay my due.” His brow furrowed.
Murdoch returned to the bale of straw and sat down again next to his son. He was silent for a time, his hands clasped and his elbows resting on his knees. Then, using his heel, he dug a shallow furrow in the dirt at his feet. “You crossed the line,” he said, nodding at the place where he had scored the moist earth.
Johnny turned to face his father, a look of confusion marring his countenance. “What line?” he murmured.
“The one between parent and child,” Murdoch answered, “between a man and a boy.”
Johnny’s mouth curled into a cantankerous pout. “Been a man a long time, Murdoch,” he ground out.
Murdoch nodded. “In many ways, yes, John; and much too soon. But today you behaved like an ill mannered, foul mouthed and blatantly disrespectful boy. You hurt Maria, deeply. I couldn’t let that pass.”
Leave it to the Old Man to lay it out in a way where I’m backed into a corner and can’t argue with what he’s sayin’, Johnny mused. Hell of it was, what the Old Man was sayin’ was right. He had behaved like a fuckin’ ass. He drew in a deep breath. “Guess we would’ve been takin’ a lot of these…walks…if Mama hadn’t run off like she did,” he sighed. He shifted slightly, wincing a bit at the discomfort in his rear end.
There was a soft chuffing sound as Murdoch attempted to stifle the outright laughter. He reached out, laying his hand on his son’s thigh and giving it a quick squeeze, relieved when the boy didn’t pull away. “I have a feeling, son, that if you and Scott had been raised here at Lancer, there would have been occasions where both of you – in all likelihood together – would have made the trek.” He gave the youth’s leg a gentle pat. “But not as many times as you may think.”
Johnny turned to face his father, his head canted slightly; puzzled by the certainty he heard in the man’s voice. “Meanin’?” he asked.
Murdoch answered without any hesitation. “Meaning you would have grown up knowing what the rules were, the limits. I would have had the opportunity to teach you right from wrong, and – in time – you would have grown to accept what you were being taught.” He shook his head, slowly. “I don’t think there would have been too many walks after you were grown, son.”
Johnny laughed. He couldn’t help himself. A quick apology was in order, and he made it. “Sorry, Murdoch.” He shrugged. “Just had this picture in my head, me and Scott suited up all proper, doin’ the yes,sir no,sir thing, always holdin’ the door open for T’resa, and bowin’.” He was leaning back, his head resting against a twelve by twelve posts, one of the several milled pines that supported the barn roof. Suddenly, he came forward, clutching his belly and doubling over in laughter.
This time when Murdoch smacked his son’s leg, it was with the back of his hand and with considerable force.
“Whoa!” Johnny exclaimed, the laughter suddenly stopping. “Jesus, Old Man, that smarts!” Frowning, he rubbed at his thigh.
“I fail to see what’s so funny about good manners,” Murdoch scolded. “Which, my boy, you most certainly would have learned.”
Johnny was still rubbing his leg. “Wasn’t thinkin’ about manners,” he groused. The corners of his mouth were quivering. “Was thinkin’ of me and Scott. Brothers, all dressed up in the same outfits, them damned plaid pants and that stupid hat with the feather.” He began snickering.
Murdoch snorted, smiling. “Trust me, son. Those pants and that hat would not have been part of your wardrobe. Or Scott’s, for that matter.”
Johnny sighed. His rear end was still smarting, and he was still puzzling over all the things that had occurred. “So, we done here?” he asked, the words coming softly but with an edge.
“For now,” Murdoch answered, recognizing the belligerence and deciding to let it pass. He levered himself up from the bale of straw, dusting off his britches. “But understand this, son. If you behave like a boy, you’re going to be treated like a boy.”
“You sayin’ this could happen again?” Johnny asked, careful this time to keep his tone neutral.
Murdoch’s mouth quirked up in a bemused smile. “That, my boy, depends entirely on you.” He reached out, ruffling the boy’s hair.
Here it comes, Johnny thought.
“You need a haircut,” Murdoch chided. His tone changed. “It’s getting late, son. I’ll give you a little time to collect yourself, but I expect you to be in the house before Martín finishes tending to the porch lights.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny watched as his father strode across the courtyard, his brow furrowing as he heard a soft ‘Good evening, Patrón’. Murdoch hesitated only a brief moment, speaking softly to someone in the shadows, out of Johnny’s line of vision.
Hope that ain’t Cip, Johnny thought. He levered himself up from the bale of hay, preparing to head for the house but changing his mind when he saw the basin and cloth his father had left behind. Killing time, he dipped his fingers into the wash bowl and wrung out the cloth. He knew where the basin belonged. Customarily, it sat on a wide shelf to the right of the rain barrel; at the corner of the barn below the eaves. It served as a communal sink for the yard hands, used during the work week between Saturday night baths in town or Lancer’s large bath house.
Dusting off his pants, he picked up the basin and tossed the cloth inside. He wasn’t usually inclined to pick up after anyone, including himself, leaving that particular chore to the women in the house; but after the lecture his Old Man had meted out he figured what the hell, why not? Wasn’t like it was goin’ to become a habit, that was for damned sure.
He stepped across the threshold, and headed for where the rain barrel stood; placing the basin on the shelf. Folding the still-damp rag he had used to mop his face; he draped it over the barrel’s rim.
Turning, he started across the yard; suddenly aware he was not alone. Senses heightened, he stopped dead in his tracks.
Paco Delgado stepped out of the night-time darkness. “Buenas noches, Primo.” (Good evening, Cousin.) The young man removed his sombrero, sweeping it to the side as he made an exaggerated bow. When he straightened, he was laughing even harder. Cavalierly, but careful to stay just out of his cousin’s reach, he circled his companion. “¿Su caminata con su Papá al granero? ¿Fue eso bien?” (And your walk with your Papa to the barn? Did it go well?)
Johnny’s jaws tightened, and his fists balled tight against his hips. While he considered his cousin an amigo, that wasn’t going to stop him from kicking his ass for making fun of him or his current position at the top of the shit list. “¿Usted piensa es chistoso, pendejo?” (You think its funny, asshole?) He beckoned with his fingers, challenging the young man to join him.
Paco stood his ground. He and his cousin were extremely competitive, and they often tangled. Well matched in weight and stature, the contests often got out of hand and usually ended when Scott and Mateo got fed up with their horseplay and pulled them apart. So the question still remained, which one of them was the hombre mejor (better man).
The young vaquero’s head canted as he addressed his cousin. “You thought it was funny when my father took me to the barn when we were all having dinner, Johnny,” Paco grinned, reverting to English. The smile grew. “You thought it was even more amusing when you told the barn crew why I wasn’t riding out.” He paused, his brow furrowing as if he were in deep thought. “Tomorrow, the men will be asking me why you aren’t with us…” He was quiet again, but only briefly. “What will I answer them,” he sighed dramatically. “What will I say that will satisfy their curiosity?” He was toying with his hat now, fingering the brim and working it around in his fingers, clearly enjoying the prospect of revenge.
Johnny’s cheeks flushed. In spite of Scott’s constant warnings to let things lie, he had teased the hell out of Paco, in front of the crew, and again the next day when they were out on the range. Still… Closing his eyes, he collected his thoughts. Then, pushing past his cousin, he headed for the house. He stopped midway and turned slightly, his fists flexing as he ran his hands up and down his thighs. “This ain’t over, Paco,” he called over his shoulder. He resumed walking, slowly, changing direction and heading toward the fenced pasture west of the main house.
Seated at his desk, Murdoch looked up as Johnny stepped down from the hallway. “Cutting it a little close, son,” he scolded, raising his voice as the clock began to toll.
Johnny waited until the clock stilled. “Needed to take a little walk,” he said. “And I took some time mopping out the basin and puttin’ it back where it belonged.” Cautiously, he began waltzing his way across the room, his fingers dancing lightly across everything he passed.
Murdoch returned his pen to its holder and leaned back in his chair, his lips twitching as he fought the smile. “I appreciate your tidiness,” he said. “I thought I’d have to do that in the morning.”
Johnny had reached his father’s desk. His chin dipped against his chest, his eyes hidden by the dark curls that tumbled across his forehead. “Paco was waitin’ for me when I came out of the barn. Said he wanted to know how my walk went.” His voice lowered. “Nosy bastard,” he muttered. His right forefinger was tapping against the top of the desk. The walk he had taken in an attempt to cool down after the confrontation with Paco hadn’t worked; not completely.
There was a loud squeal as Murdoch shifted in his chair and the heavy coiled spring sang in protest. He studied his son’s face, concerned by what he was seeing. “I seem to recall, son, that you were less than compassionate when your cousin had a similar experience.” His voice lowered. “I won’t tolerate the two of you getting into some foolish scrap over what’s occurred, and neither will your Uncle. Cip already told me he’s not very happy about what you said to Maria, and if he catches you and Paco engaging in any brawling, he will most certainly put an end to it. And it will not be a pleasant experience.”
Johnny’s finger stopped tapping. His shoulders drooped. “Aw, c’mon, Murdoch,” he moaned. “One more person beats on my as…butt, I ain’t gonna have enough meat left to hold up my britches.”
Murdoch leaned forward and picked up his pen and dipped it into the ink. He tapped the nib against the edge of the brass well, dislodging the excess and then resumed making entries in his ledger. “‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap,’” he intoned, paraphrasing the parable.
Johnny’s mouth opened and just as quickly closed. He stared down at his father – at the top of his father’s head – the pout forming as he considered the man’s words. Murdoch was forever quoting scripture. Well, at least he said it was scripture. “Any chance they got somethin’ in that Book about beatin’ on your kids?” he asked.
Murdoch didn’t look up, didn’t even pause in his writing, his deep voice resonating into the dim shadows of the Great Room. “‘Withhold not correction from the child…Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.’” The skin behind the man’s ears crinkled and he kept his head lowered in a conscious effort to hide the smile, feeling not one mote of shame over his slightly abridged version of the verses he had just quoted.
There were a lot of things about his father that pissed Johnny Lancer off, but none of them were more aggravating than those times when he wasn’t sure if the old man was pulling his leg. In fact, he was certain that the Old Man and Scott had joined forces to play a game with him: one where they kept tossing out bits of what they claimed was Scripture, just to reinforce the long list of rules. He decided to confirm his suspicions and to call the Old Man’s bluff. That’ll teach him, he smirked. He moved in closer to the desk, tapped the smooth wood again with his right forefinger. “So where in the Book would I find them words,” he asked amicably. “I mean, if I was of a mind to look.”
This time, Murdoch did look up. His lower lip was trembling a bit, but he still didn’t surrender to the smile. “You’ll find them in the Book of Proverbs, John. If you were of a mind to look.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, the suspicion still evident in the sapphire blue orbs. It was tempting, for a brief moment, to ask his father just exactly which chapter and which verse. Problem was if he pushed, he knew damned good and well the Old Man would make him look it up. And then, just for spite, make him memorize it or write it down.
Murdoch retrieved a hand-rolled cigar from the humidor sitting just to the right of his desk set. He leaned back in his chair, peeling the top layer of tobacco leaf from the smoke before clipping the nub and lighting up. Johnny, he knew, was chewing things over in his head, the boy’s face displaying a multitude of emotion. He decided to spare the youth any further torment. “Since you missed supper, Maria has left something for you in the warming oven,” he said. His tone changed slightly as he assumed the stern parent role. “You make sure, son, you clean up after yourself,” he admonished. “Maria has enough to do rooting around under your bed for your dirty socks and underwear without having to clean up after you in the kitchen.” He swiped at his nose before looking down at the open ledger, hiding the smile. “Go,” he ordered, making a shooing motion with his left hand.
There was an audible whoosh as the younger man exhaled. He was off like a shot.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
A full cup of coffee in his right hand, Scott eased into the chair across from his sibling, the easy, dimpled smile coming as he watched his brother digging in. “It would appear, boy,” he grinned, nodding at the full platter and the generous slice of apple pie, “you have been well and truly forgiven.”
Johnny was gnawing his way through a warm tortilla stuffed with shredded, spiced pork. Mindful of his brother’s annoying penchant for good manners, he swallowed before answering. “By Maria, maybe,” he shrugged. “Ain’t all that sure yet about the Old…Murdoch.”
Scott’s right hand snaked out as he quickly swiped a piece of the warm flatbread. “I take it our father dispensed a little paternal guidance?” he asked.
There was a soft scraping sound as Johnny reached out and pointedly pulled the plate containing the slab of cinnamon-and-sugar topped apple pie away from his brother’s long fingers. “That what people in Boston call it when someone’s old man wallops the hell out of their kid’s ass?” he snorted. “‘Paternal guidance?’”
Unable to stop himself, Scott chuckled. His brother’s pout, he thought, was worthy of a ten year old looking for sympathy and not getting what he wanted. “It’s not as if he hasn’t warned you, little brother.”
Johnny was mopping up the remainder of the salsa from his plate. Using his tongue, he swiped a small bit of pork from the corner of his mouth. “There anything in the Bible about whuppin’ on your kids?” he inquired.
“Do you mean like ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’?” Scott quickly answered, carefully watching his brother’s face.
The frown was instantaneous. “I’ll kick your ass if you’re tryin’ to pull one over on me, Boston,” Johnny threatened.
Scott’s grin blossomed into a full-blown smile. “Now why would I try to do that, brother?” he teased. He came forward in his chair, taking advantage of the fact his brother was deep in thought to snitch a chunk of a cinnamon topped, juice-laden apple slice from the slab of pie.
Johnny’s frown deepened into truly magnificent pout. He took a swing at his brother’s hand. “That’s mine!”
The blond canted his head and shook a finger at his sibling. “The Book of Proverbs is filled with very detailed instructions on how to deal with greedy, disrespectful and disobedient children,” he admonished. “And ‘whuppin’ them is right at the top of the list.” He paused, but just momentarily. “I could read them to you,” he suggested charitably.
“Like that has a chance in hell of happenin’,” Johnny groused. “Still think it stinks. Shit, you’d think I was some damned kid…”
Scott laughed, boisterously. “You are a kid,” he countered. “Murdoch Lancer’s kid, the Patrón’s baby boy, and my…” he thumped his own chest, “little brother.” Scott was smirking now and feeling just a tad smug in his position as the elder son. “And if you continue to keep testing the limits of our father’s...”
Johnny speared his brother with a harsh glare. “… ‘fragile paternal patience,’” he interrupted. He shifted a bit in his chair, wishing the seat was upholstered. Leaning forward slightly, he beckoned with the forefinger of his right hand, his voice lowering as if he was sharing a secret. “Well, I got news for you, big brother,” he murmured. “I ain’t the only one the Old Man says ‘excels at testin’ the limits’.” He flashed the older man a toothy grin. “In fact, he said he’s been real,” he dragged out the word, “tempted to call you to task for your transgressions.”
Scott’s right eyebrow arched. Johnny was actually gloating. “And he told you this?” he asked.
Johnny used a single finger to snag a piece of apple that was leaking from between the crust of the oven warmed pie. This time he didn’t mind his manners. “Yep,” he smacked, still chewing. The sugar was already beginning to work, prompting him to tell a small lie. “Said he just might be takin’ you for a walk to the barn, you keep pushin’.” He was smiling full out now.
The declaration caused Scott to snicker. “Well, thank you for the warning,” he breathed. A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “However, little brother, unlike you I’ve learned not to cross that line. In fact,” the smile grew, his cheeks dimpling, “I’ve become quite adept at recognizing just how far I can push before Murdoch starts pushing back.” His voice lowered. “It’s a learned skill, Johnny, and if you’re a good boy – a very good boy – I might even teach you how to avoid…” he paused, “…those walks to the barn.”
Johnny’s right hand raised, his middle finger pointing towards the ceiling. “There anything in the Book about this?” he grouched.
Scott didn’t miss a beat. “‘If your brother sins, rebuke him’,” he said, smacking the offending hand.
Cursing under his breath, Johnny visibly wilted. If this shit kept up, he was going to have to sneak a look at the Book just to make sure the Old Man and his wise assed brother weren’t playing him. “Still think its bullshit,” he muttered. He squirmed a bit in the chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. It wasn’t working. “The Old Man dustin’ my britches like I was some…”
“…damned kid,” Scott finished. He raised a hand, stalling the argument that was already forming. “So what exactly happened, brother?”
Johnny had picked up the pie plate and was lapping up the excess juice like a puppy; something he knew his brother would find particularly offensive. When he was finished cleaning the plate, he burped, purposely neglecting to excuse himself. “Caught me gettin’ ready to saddle Barranca,” he confessed. “Grabbed me by the back of neck, shoved me against the saddle, took off his belt and walloped the hell out of me.” He paused. “We got to do somethin’ about keepin’ him outta the forge,” he sighed, dropping his right hand to his gently swipe at his butt to make his point.
Scott laughed. “Why?” he queried. “Are you anticipating another … walk… to the barn?”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “Not plannin’ on it,” he grouched. “But the Old Man…” He shook his head. “The Old Man kinda said it could happen again.” A puzzled expression crossed his face. “Said it ‘entirely depends on you’, whatever the hell that means.”
Scott was contemplating his coffee cup, the forefinger of his right hand tracing the gold trim on the cup’s rim. “And what else did he say?” he prompted.
Johnny had to think about that for awhile. “Said if I behaved like a boy, he was gonna treat me like a boy,” he replied. “Told me I had ‘crossed the line’.”
“And what line would that be, Johnny?” Scott asked, careful to keep the censure out of his voice.
The boy’s chin dropped to his chest. “The one between parent and child,” he answered; “between a boy and a man.” It was clear from the expression on his face he still wasn’t clear regarding what his father had implied.
“In other words, brother, what he was saying was you had crossed that tenuous line between the rule maker and the rule breaker.” Scott smiled across at his sibling, and began ticking off the boy’s transgressions. “You spent the day drinking, you missed the appointment to go over the books, you listened to and believed some vicious gossip, and you topped that all off by saying horrible things to Maria who has always treated you with incredible kindness.” He canted his head. “All behavior of an unthinking, undisciplined brat, little brother.” He exhaled. “I’m surprised you still aren’t out in the barn, and even more surprised Maria left you some supper.
“You’re pretty lucky, Johnny, if you think about it.”
Johnny was partially out of his chair, intending to check out the pie cabinet on the chance there was another piece of pie. Pissed at his brother’s holier-than-thou attitude, he dropped back into his seat, a hiss coming as his butt made contact with the wooden seat. Christ, his ass was smartin’. “And how do you figure that, pendejo (asshole)?” he snapped. “Luck would’a been me gettin’ Barranca saddled and out of that barn before the Old Man got done talkin’ to Cip!”
Scott shook his head. “And when Murdoch caught up with you?” he ventured. “You’d have rather he pulled you out of the Red Dog or the Silver Dollar and upended you over the hitching rail to collect his due in front of the entire town?”
Murdoch, in search of a fresh cup of coffee, had heard the exchange between his sons. He stepped into the room and headed for the stove. “Which, son, I can assure you is exactly what would have happened. With several more licks added for running away.” Under his breath, he muttered. “Which is precisely what I should have done when you ran off with Wes.”
Johnny turned in his father’s direction, knowing exactly what his father had just said and staring hard at the man’s back. He was frowning, and the frown deepened as he watched his Old Man pilfer the pie pan from Maria’s cabinet.
Murdoch continued his rummaging, removing two pie plates from the curtained shelves above the sink. When he turned back to the table, he placed the pie tin between his own chair at the head of the table and Scott’s on his right. There were only two pieces of pie remaining.
Scott got up and fetched the forks, the pie knife and the coffee pot. Setting down the utensils, he filled his father’s mug first, and then his own cup. When he sat back down he was aware of his brother’s eyes on him. He waited until Murdoch placed the slab of pie on his plate, all the time surreptitiously watching his brother. Sighing, he halved his portion and used his fork to reach out to put it on Johnny’s plate.
Murdoch didn’t miss the silent exchange and shifted his gaze to his younger son.
Johnny could feel his father’s eyes on him. “Scott swiped some of my pie when he came in,” he griped, his tone accusatory. “Without askin’.”
“I would think, then,” Murdoch began, “A ‘thank you’ would be in order.” Seeing his younger son’s mouth open in protest, he continued. “And you,” he turned his gaze on his elder son, “owe your brother an apology for pilfering his pie.”
Scott smiled at the rebuke and nodded his head. “I promise not to steal anymore of your pie, Johnny, without first saying please,” he teased. “Sorry.” The final word came with the same amount of remorse his brother usually expressed: none.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. He shoved a piece of pie into his mouth, and with his mouth full, muttered “thanks” in the same tone as his brother’s.
Murdoch rolled his eyes and looked up at the ceiling, as if considering a prayer.
A rare quiet descended on the room, the only sounds the scrape of forks against the delicate china and the occasional noise of sipped coffee. Scott was the first to break the silence, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as he watched his younger brother mentally debating how to deal with the remainder of the crumbs and thick apple filling that remained on his plate. “About tomorrow, sir,” he said, addressing his father. “Now that the rain has stopped, what do you think our first priority should be when we send out the work crews?”
Murdoch leaned back in his chair, a bemused smile on his face as he watched Johnny cogitating about the scant remains of his pie. It was as if the boy was working out the details of a great dilemma, formulating a plan of attack. He decided to end the boy’s misery, and – before Johnny mopped up the juice and sucked it from his fingers – reached out to take his son’s plate and pile it atop his own. “We’ll need to send at least one crew up to the Ribbon to check the stream’s flow at the narrows. A week of steady rainfall is bound to have brought some downed trees from the higher elevations.” He hesitated. “And we still have that Wells-Fargo contract to fulfill. They’re expecting twenty head trained to harness, and another ten animals broke to saddle for their express riders.” He turned his gaze to his younger boy. “Perhaps a day or two of your magic might work, son. The matched bays?”
Johnny, who had been about to doze off, came immediately awake. The idea of planting his tender butt atop two jug heads with a penchant for crow-hopping the minute he put his boot to the stirrup wasn’t at all appealing. “You’re kiddin’, right?” The mere thought of such an endeavor had him shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Me and Scott can go with the crew up to the Ribbon.” At a walk; a very slow walk. A hint of a smile touched his lips, and he hid it with a yawn. And if I work it right, I can sucker Scott into doin’ the grunt work.
“You won’t be riding anywhere with your brother, or anyone else for that matter,” Murdoch announced. “Those two horses I mentioned are being trained to harness, not to saddle.” He tapped his index finger against the stack of plates sitting in front of him and then added Scott’s dish to the pile. Reaching out, he fingered the rim of the dinner plate at the top of the stack. “Dishes,” he said.
Deftly, but with some reluctance, Johnny picked up a single plate and fork, and as an afterthought, the empty pie tin.
“These, too,” Murdoch directed, shoving the other dishes across the table.
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “But they ain’t mine,” he complained. “You said I was to clean up my mess.”
Scott drained his coffee cup and added it to the collection. He smiled up at his brother, but said nothing.
Murdoch was shaking his head. “John, you’re going to have to draw water for your dishes, and it will be more than enough to take care of the rest.”
“But, nothing,” Murdoch interrupted. “And make sure you dry them and put them away.” He turned to his eldest. “I think a nightcap is order, son. Would you care to join me?”
Scott shoved back his chair, grimacing a bit as the wooden legs scraped across the tile. “I think that would be a fitting end to a very long day,” he replied as he stood up. He paused to look at his brother. Johnny was still standing at the table, a bewildered look on his face. But it was clear the wheels were turning. Shaking his head at the boy’s pigheadedness, he turned and followed his father out of the room.
Johnny stood for a time, staring hard at the stack of dishes on the table. He wondered if Maria counted the tableware; if Mamácita knew just how many plates, cups and forks the kitchen cabinets held. He sighed. Hell, the woman probably counted the coffee beans.
Still, the thought of sneaking out the back door and dumping the whole mess into the now abandoned out house behind the hacienda was pretty damned tempting…
The voice boomed out the darkness beyond the hallway. “John! I don’t hear that water running!”
Startled, the youth found himself juggling the plates he held in his hands. Shit! Shit, shit, shit.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott eased his long frame onto the couch, a brandy snifter in his right hand. He opened his mouth to speak, hesitating as the rattle of the galvanized water pipes sounded from the kitchen. When the noise subsided, he addressed his father. “You said Johnny wouldn’t be riding out tomorrow, sir.” He favored the older man with a smile. “Am I safe in assuming you’ve formulated a long list of chores to keep him occupied and close to home?”
Murdoch had settled in the large overstuffed chair beside the fireplace. He propped his feet up on the ottoman, crossing his legs; one foot atop the opposite ankle. “Not this time,” he replied. He raised his glass in a small salute, smiling. “Your brother and I sorted things out in the barn. And as for what he will be doing tomorrow…” The smile broadened and his voice lowered.
Interested, Scott leaned forward, aware his father was going to continue with some caution.
The patriarch shifted in his chair, dropping his feet to the floor and resting his elbows on his knees. “Maria is going to be in charge,” he announced. “She’s decided your brother’s room is in great need of a good cleaning, and she doesn’t want any surprises. And…” he was almost whispering now, “…since Teresa will be going into town to visit Molly Pritchard, there are some other chores she has in mind.”
Scott laughed. “Those ‘chores’ wouldn’t have anything to do with all those things Johnny refers to as ‘squaw’s work’, do they?”
“Only if he considers taking up some of the carpets and beating them, or spending some time in the garden pulling weeds.” Murdoch paused to take a sip of his drink.
A smile tugged at Scott’s lips. “Definitely things my brother feels are – as he often reminds Teresa – ‘women’s work’.”
“There’s more,” Murdoch responded. “Maria has also decided she’s had enough of the boy’s excuses about getting his hair cut. She told me she has no intention of letting him out of the house again until his hair is properly trimmed to her liking.”
Scott chuckled. “So we will be tying him to a chair after breakfast,” he teased.
Murdoch was quiet, as if considering the idea. “I don’t think that will be necessary, son. With the discomfort Johnny’s feeling right now he’s not going to risk Maria getting after him with her spoon.” He chuckled.
“About Johnny’s…discomfort,” Scott began. “He informed me I could possibly be invited to take a similar walk.”
There was the sound of soft laughter as Murdoch leaned back in his chair and made himself comfortable. He lifted his glass in salute. “I’m sure we could negotiate, son,” he grinned. “But it doesn’t hurt to let him think it might happen.”
Scott reached back behind the couch to the drink table and picked up the decanter of Scotch. He refilled his father’s glass, and poured himself a half measure before returning the decanter to the silver tray. He was silent for a time, his expression contemplative. “Why this time, Murdoch?” he asked finally. “Johnny’s gotten out of line before, and you’ve pulled him up short. But this time…”
Murdoch cut in before Scott could finish. “He needed to know I could do it,” he replied. “That I would do it.”
There were times, Scott thought, that his father could be just as much an enigma as his brother. “I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
His kitchen chores finished, Johnny – in his stockinged feet – headed for the great room. He skidded to a stop when he heard the disembodied voice of his brother.
“I’m not sure I understand, sir.”
Taking a sip of his scotch, Murdoch considered his response. “And I’m not sure if can explain,” he ventured. He cleared his throat. “It’s something Val said to me when I came to town last Saturday.”
At the mention of Val’s name, Johnny edged even closer to the door, but stayed in the shadows. There would be hell to pay if he was caught eavesdropping, one of the many sins his father ranked right up there with showing up late for meals, but he decided it was worth the risk.
Scott laughed, softly. His chin dipped against his chest, his cheeks dimpling as he risked an embarrassed smile. “When you bailed Johnny and me out of jail,” he ventured. He chanced a glance at his father. “It was Mayor Higgs who started that entire fiasco, sir, going on about how he was the one who orchestrated Green River being designated as a major stop on the expanded route for the Western Pacific.”
Murdoch snorted. “Mayor Higgs couldn’t orchestrate a concert for a one-man band,” he scoffed. Then, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth, he continued. “Which is still no excuse for dumping the man into the watering trough in front of the sheriff’s office after a street long shoving match. Sometimes your brother…”
“Johnny wasn’t the one doing the shoving, Murdoch,” Scott confessed, interrupting. “I started it when the honorable Lord Mayor Mr. Higgs…” his tone was a clear indication of the contempt he felt for the politician, “…started his diatribe about how it was his influence, not Lancer’s or your position with the Cattle Grower’s Association that was bringing renewal to the valley.” He stared into his glass, rotating it a bit and causing the liquid to whirlpool up the sides. “And it was more of a poke than a shove,” he finished.
“So you were defending Lancer,” Murdoch said. Defending me, he thought, inwardly pleased but not daring to show it; considering the outcome. Higgs had pressed assault charges against both his sons, who acerbated the situation by steadfastly refusing to apologize; Johnny being the most vocal in his protests.
Scott considered his father’s word and then nodded his head. “And it was my poke, sir, not Johnny’s.” He lifted the drink to his lips and drained the glass. He felt a need to change the subject. “You were talking about Val, about something he said to you when you were…” he avoided the word jail, “…in his office?”
Murdoch grimaced, knowing full well what his son had just done. Like his younger brother, Scott was quite skilled in using diversionary tactics.
Still hidden in the hallway, Johnny fisted his hand against his face, stifling a snicker. Leave it to big brother to snooker their Old Man and lead him down a cold trail. But, God, he wished the two of them would quit whispering. Hunkering down, his buttocks resting on his stockinged heels, he scooted closer to the door; but still staying in the shadows.
Murdoch gestured with his glass, watching as Scott poured both of them the evening’s final half measure. “Val made it quite clear, Scott, that it was your poke that sent Mayor Higgs on his backward journey down the walkway, but it was your brother’s clever little dance and footwork that caused Higgs to end up in the watering trough.” He shook a finger at his son. “And it didn’t escape anyone’s attention that his attempt to ‘help’ the man included shoving his head beneath the water before he pulled him upright and left him sitting there like a fool.”
Scott struggled, but couldn’t stop the sputtering chuckle that escaped his lips. Even he had been surprised by what had happened; that ‘oh, shit’ moment when he realized what Johnny intended.
“It is not funny, young man,” Murdoch scolded. His right eyebrow arched as he fought to control the smile. “It may interest you to know exactly what Val said when we were talking.” He watched as his elder son immediately sobered.
“And that would be, sir?” Scott’s tone was contrite; cautious.
“In addition to telling me your brother needs to be smacked up beside his head with a 2 x 4 when he refuses to listen, he also suggested the two of you shouldn’t be allowed out without a leash if you can’t behave,” Murdoch answered. “And then he said I needed to consider building a woodshed and begin using it for both of you on a daily basis.”
In the hallway, Johnny was working hard to not laugh out loud at the idea of his brother being marched to a woodshed; and thinking just how much he would pay to see it actually happen. He was almost doubled over, cocooned; one hand covering his mouth, his free arm wrapped tight around his ribs holding in the laughter. So intent was he on maintaining his composure, he didn’t hear Teresa tip-toeing up behind him.
“Hands up,” the girl hissed in his ear; poking a rigid finger into his back like a toy wooden pistol.
Johnny’s reaction was instantaneous. He instinctively tucked and rolled, tumbling down the stairs leading into the Great Room; somersaulting and landing hard on his butt.
“God dammit, T’resa!” he yelped; rubbing his rear. “What the fuck…?”
The room went suddenly quiet; awaiting the proverbial pin drop. And then Murdoch rose up from his chair. Teresa, wearing a nightgown and robe, was now standing behind Johnny, a look of bemusement on her face. “I came down the back stairs to get a cup of tea,” she said to her guardian, pointing toward the kitchen; a cup and saucer in her left hand. “I heard you and Scott talking and I was going to come in and say good night.” Her head canted and she smiled. “And then I saw Johnny…”
“Lurking in the hallway?” Murdoch finished. He shifted his gaze to his younger son and he frowned.
“Wasn’t lurkin’,” Johnny muttered. He was still sitting on the floor, his legs drawn up against his chest; his forearms resting atop his knees.
“No,” Murdoch breathed, drawing the word out. “You were eavesdropping on your brother and me.”
Johnny looked up, his mouth opening to sass back when he spied Scott behind Murdoch. Scott was shaking his head in warning; and for good measure had just pressed his forefinger to his lips. Sighing, Johnny levered himself to his feet and dusted off his britches. “Still don’t give her the right to scare the sh… crap outta me,” he groused.
“Nor you the right to swear at her like some drunken drover,” Murdoch chided. He assumed his stern father look. “I want to hear some apologies, and then I want to hear some feet going up those stairs.” He pointed to the darkened hallway.
Teresa leaned close to Johnny, whispering in his ear; a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. “I’m sorry I scared the shit out of you, Johnny.”
Johnny failed to hide his surprise; his teeth showing as he gave his adopted sister an impish grin. “Sorry I said the fuck word, T’resa,” he murmured, not one bit repentant. But then, he knew, neither was she. He turned a bigger smile on his father, looping his arm around Teresa’s shoulders. “Okay, we apologized.”
Scott snorted. He was very skilled at reading lips. Murdoch harrumphed; well aware his children were playing with him. “But not for the eavesdropping,” he reprimanded.
Shrugging, Johnny decided to – just this once – let his father win one. Well, kind of. “Sorry for not just buttin’ in when you and Scott were talkin’.” Then, throwing caution to the wind; “I hear you say something about Val and you talkin’?” he asked.
This time it was Murdoch’s turn to smile. “He suggested I keep you and your brother on a very short leash,” he said, paraphrasing, “at least until you boys are grown up enough to be allowed out to play without a proper chaperone.” His right eyebrow arched again; “which he doesn’t think will be happening any time soon.” His next smile was even more intimidating. “I intend to abide by that very astute suggestion, and the one regarding a need for a woodshed.”
Johnny’s eyes widened. He wasn’t quite sure what astute meant, but was sure he wouldn’t like the definition. His assumption was confirmed when he saw the look on Scott’s face. “Meanin’?” he ventured.
Murdoch stretched. “Meaning, my son, that morning comes very early here on Lancer and it would be a good idea for you to remember that and get some sleep.” Once again, he gestured toward the hallway leading to the stairs. “Now.” Satisfied he had had the last word, he turned away from his brood and headed for his desk to turn off the lamp.
Before Johnny could follow in his father’s wake, Scott quickly moved forward and grabbed his brother’s arm. Shooing Teresa ahead of him, Scott pulled his brother along as he headed up the steps into the foyer and toward the stairway leading up to their second floor bedrooms. He shushed them both; Johnny’s attempted argument and Teresa’s complaint about her now tepid tea.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Teresa went directly to her room and shut the door. Scott – aware that Murdoch would soon be coming up the stairs – was still holding on to his brother; intent on ushering Johnny through the door to his bedroom. “When are you going to learn not to keep pushing Murdoch?” he asked. “First wanting to know what Val had said to him, and then asking him to expound on the man’s ‘astute suggestion’.”
Johnny jerked free of his brother’s grasp as soon as they crossed the threshold and began removing his shirt. Sometimes his grasp of English frustrated him. Even with Val, he still sometimes tended to think first in Spanish and translate the words in his head. And while the lawman had an above average English vocabulary – considering the rank and file of their usual companions – they had lived and worked in Mexico and on the border for a long time before coming north. Val had schooled him in both languages, making sure he could read and write in English and in Spanish, but he’d never once heard him use the fuckin’ word astute. “Wasn’t pushin’,” he groused. “Just wanted to know what the fuck he meant.”
Scott’s eyebrows rose. And then it dawned on him what his brother was wanting. “You’re talking about what Murdoch said was Val’s ‘astute suggestion’,” he breathed. “It means a variety of things, brother; but in Val’s case – and Murdoch’s for that matter – I think the best definition would be clever or, in this case, crafty.” He smiled. “Val was being a smart-ass.”
Johnny brow furrowed. “You mean that shit about keepin’ us on a short leash…”
“…until we boys are grown up enough to be allowed out to play without a baby sitter,” Scott finished. “Which, if our father has his way, won’t be for a very long time.” Scott flopped down on his brother’s bed and arranged the pillows more to his liking.
“That ain’t funny, Scott,” Johnny grouched. He pulled his shirt off and tossed it at his brother’s head.
Scott caught the shirt, balled it up, and threw it back. “Basket,” he instructed, nodding toward the empty wicker hamper beside his brother’s dresser. When Johnny failed to comply and dropped the shirt on the floor, the earnest scolding began. “You need to know that Murdoch told me you are going to be working around the house tomorrow, brother, under Maria’s very competent guidance.” There was no way in hell he was going to say anything about the haircut, but he wasn’t done with the lecture. “He’s also informed me she intends to supervise you cleaning this room.” He reached up to fluff the pillows behind his head, making himself more comfortable.
What the Hell? How had he missed hearing that? Sighing, Johnny retrieved the shirt and tossed it into the basket. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Shit, fuck!” Cranky, he shot a dark look at his brother. “You got a reason for makin’ yourself all cozy in my bed?”
Scott looked up at his sibling. “You mean aside from working very hard to try and keep you out of trouble with Maria?” he joshed. Seeing his brother was not amused, he changed tack. “Just how much did you overhear when Murdoch and I were talking,” he asked.
“Sure in hell didn’t hear that part about bein’ stuck in the house doin’ squaw’s work.” Johnny was shimmying out of his britches. “But enough to know I’m goin’ to be havin’ some words with Val about not givin’ Murdoch any more ‘astute suggestions’ about a fuckin’ woodshed,” he groused.
A subtle change occurred in Scott’s expression, and he was drumming the fingers of his right hand against his firm stomach. “Johnny,” he began. “How long have you and Val been friends?”
It was clear from the look on Johnny’s face the question was not only unexpected, but unwelcome. His eyes seemed to darken, the blue more intense; cold. “Long enough,” he replied, his voice flat.
Undeterred by his brother’s cool response, Scott persisted. “I’m not asking you for your life story, Johnny.” He pivoted on the bed, sitting up before continuing, the words cordial. “It’s just that I’ve watched the two of you, seen the way you are with each other, and it just seems that there’s more to the story than…”
“Than what?” Johnny snapped. He was holding on to his pants as if he was debating putting them back on.
Scott stood up. “I’m just making an observation, brother,” he said, careful to keep his tone neutral. “It’s different then what I saw between you and Wes, something more tangible than ‘we rode together’.” He inhaled, considering what to say next. “You and Val,” he clasped his hands together, his fingers entwining and the words coming softly. “You’re more like family than friends,” he finished; “as if you’ve known each other for a long time.”
Johnny’s jaws tensed. A multitude of emotions tore at his gut; not the least of them a rage he did not comprehend. In the few months since he and his brother had been together he had struggled against an unexpected desire to bond with his sibling; finally settling on a wary trust. “He fucked her!” The angry words tumbled out before he could stop them. “Is that what you wanted to know, brother? That Val was one of the suckers she sweet-talked into takin’ care of her, givin’ her a chance at something better than dancin’ in a cantina or sellin’ herself as a ten dollar whore?”
Scott was stunned; struck dumb by what he had just heard. He stood rooted in place, unable to move until he realized Johnny was pulling on his calzoneras and hastily buttoning the conchos. Reaching out, he grabbed his brother’s arm. “Johnny!” Then, not knowing what else to do, he pulled his brother into his arms and held on.
There was a brief scuffle; both young men aware that their father’s room was only two doors away. Scott had the advantage of height and his long arms as he wrestled Johnny in the direction of the bed; both of them inhaling suddenly as Johnny’s right hip collided with the bedside table. The clatter of china alerted them both to an impending crisis as the night stand wobbled and the porcelain pitcher and wash basin began a rapid slide toward the floor; followed by the heavy leaded glass kerosene lamp. Just in time, they made the awkward catch; both of them working together to grab the fragile glassware and preventing it from crashing to the floor.
Johnny blew out a single breath. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
Scott carefully juggled the basin and pitcher, using one hand to steady his burden. Johnny was clutching the lamp. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “Murdoch would have heard that for sure,” he murmured.
Together, they carefully put the glassware back on the table. Both of them stood for a time, collecting their thoughts; waiting for their heartbeats and breathing to return to normal. Scott was the first to speak. “I’m sorry.” Just the two words.
Johnny’s head dipped, his dark hair falling across his eyes as he swallowed against the ache deep in his throat. He could taste bile, his ears burned, and for a long moment he thought he was going to be sick. It was like a bad dream; the loss of control he had experienced earlier when he had blurted out the words he never intended speaking. “For what?” he murmured. “What the hell do you have to be sorry for? It wasn’t like you were holdin’ a fuckin’ gun to my head.”
Scott was quiet for a long moment. “I asked a question I had no right asking,” he said finally, the regret tangible and sincere. It appeared he was going to speak again, but reconsidered, shaking his head.
The silence between the brothers was intensified by the lack of light, the bedside lantern having been extinguished after the near drop to the floor. Only a sliver of silver from beyond the open window penetrated the darkness, the cold white light of the rising moon; and it seemed to slice through the silence. The beam of light cut through the gloom, widening to pass between the slender forms of the brothers; separating them as effectively as an insurmountable brick wall.
Tentatively, Scott reached out to breach the barrier. “Johnny.” “Scott” Soft, embarrassed laughter came with the sudden collision of words as they both spoke at once.
Restless, Johnny nodded toward the partially open window. Knowing Scott would follow, he crossed the few feet to the portal, closing his eyes briefly as he inhaled the sweetness of the night air. And then he spoke. “I was just a kid,” he began, raising his right hand to measure the distance from the floor to just above his knees. “Me and Mama were livin’ in this place called San Luís. It was bigger than most towns we’d lived in before and the cantina…” the words drifted off for a heartbeat before he continued. He cleared his throat. “She was dancin’ there, like always.” God, she had been beautiful. Even as a child he had sensed there was something special about her, some feral splendor that drew men to her like moths to a flame. “Val saw her.” His right shoulder lifted in a small shrug.
“I found ‘em in her bed; the next mornin’. This big gringo, damned near longer than her bed, butt naked and surprised to see some fuckin’ blue-eyed kid lookin’ up at him.” He’d had a knife; had told the man “Mejor no lastimes a mi Mamá, gringo.”. (Better not hurt my Mama, gringo.)
Scott reached out, touching his brother’s arm. “You don’t have to do this, Johnny.”
The younger man chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “I do.” He looked into his brother’s face, softened now beneath the light of the moon. “Some of it, anyway.” Turning away again, he continued. Not that he was going to tell it all. “He had a place outside of town. A nice house.” It hurt to remember. “Another adobe, where the cook and her husband and kid lived. Big barn.” He inhaled, wondering if the Fuentes were still there, if they remembered him. “He was gonna raise horses.” His head lowered, surprised – embarrassed – when he felt the warmth of his own tears against his cheeks. He ducked his head and used his arm to scrub them away. “He was gonna raise me,” he finished.
“What happened?” Scott asked.
Another shrug, this one different from the other; more abrupt. “She fucked it up. Like she always fucked things up,” Johnny murmured. “She ran. Took me and ran.”
Not for the first time, Scott found himself hating a woman he had never known. He closed his eyes briefly, hammering the rage into something more manageable. Still, his voice was shaking when he spoke. “And Val?”
Johnny considered the question. “Sold the place,” he said finally. “Used the money and spent a lot of years lookin’ for us.” He raised his hand, stopping the question he saw forming on his brother’s lips. “We kinda a found each other,” he said, smiling at the memory. He’d been caught trying to steal the man’s horse. “Couple of years later, in Arizona.”
Scott’s mind was working overtime. He was anxious to know more but didn’t want to risk jeopardizing an end to their conversation; and chose what he hoped was neutral ground. “And your mother, too?” he asked.
Johnny grunted. “Hell, I was weaned,” he answered dismissively, a clear indication there would be no further discussion of his mother.
“So what was Val doing in Arizona?” Scott posed, taking the hint.
This time, Johnny laughed. “Guidin’ a wagon train load of gold out of Mexico.” He punched his brother’s arm. “French money for the Confederates.”
Scott feigned shock. “Val was giving aid and comfort to the enemy?” he joshed. He knew from conversations he and the lawman had shared Val had served as a Texas volunteer for the Confederacy, although the man had been ambiguous about what his service had involved.
“Wasn’t Val’s enemy,” Johnny shot back, laughing; flinching when his brother returned the punch.
They were quiet again, each lost in their own thoughts. Scott was the first to resume talking. “So you were together again. How long?”
Not long enough, Johnny thought ruefully. “For awhile,” he answered, purposely vague. His voice lowered, and he was staring out the window; watching a shooting star on the western horizon. “Sometimes…” his voice faltered. When he began again the words came softly and with trepidation. “Do you believe in God, Scott?” he whispered.
Taken aback, Scott’s surprise was real. He hesitated before answering, wondering how the conversation had turned in this direction; but knowing instinctively Johnny wanted an honest answer. “Yes,” he said finally. “There was a time,” he continued quickly, “during the War, when I questioned His existence; wondered how the God my Grandmother had taught me about could allow such madness and destruction.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Johnny’s curiosity and he didn’t pursue the matter. His arms were folded atop the window sill, his chin resting on his forearms, his focus changing. This was the first time Scott had mentioned his grandmother. He knew all about he wanted to know about Scott’s grandfather, Harlan Garrett; but his brother had never mentioned the man’s wife. “What was she like?” he asked, “Your Grandmother.” Inwardly, he wondered what kind of woman could have been married to Garrett; and the pictures that were forming in his head were far from pleasant. Harlan Garrett was an ass; a selfish bastard who had damned near gotten Scott killed. The Old Man and Scott might have forgiven Garrett for his betrayals and reached some accord, but it would be a cold day in Hell before he cut the fucking piece of shit any slack.
Scott was standing close to his brother, his forehead pressed against the cool, thick glass. His breath formed a fine mist on the window, and he touched the spot, drawing a small heart with his fingertip. “She was incredible,” he declared affectionately. “She was the eldest of three children and the only one to survive to adulthood. Her parents doted on her, but she wasn’t spoiled. She was well educated – I don’t think I ever saw her when she wasn’t reading a book, a newspaper or some scientific journal. And her laughter…” The words drifted off.
The mention of laughter was a surprising revelation for Johnny, although he wasn’t sure why. Scott had a good sense of humor and an easy smile; sure in hell not like the sour-faced Garrett. He found the part about the woman reading interesting, though. Explained a lot about Scott always having his nose stuck in a book or writing in some damned periodical. “She was good to you?” he asked.
Nodding, Scott smiled. “More than good. She was kind, and gentle. I think she felt her mission in life was to make up for the fact I never had the opportunity to know my mother.” He turned to face his sibling. “And she was incredibly strong.” Knowing he needed to explain, he continued. “My mother wasn’t the only child my grandparents lost, Johnny. She had a twin brother. He died in a sailing accident when he was fifteen and it devastated my mother and my Grandfather. It was my Grandmother that became the glue that held the family together.” A bittersweet smile formed as another memory surfaced.
“She sang,” he continued; “all the time. Grandfather said she brought them out of the darkness of their loss and into the joy of sunlight.” There was a moment’s hesitation as he collected his thoughts and fought the ache at the back of his throat. It had been a long time since he had spoken to anyone about his Grandmother.
Johnny said nothing for a time, silently considering his brother’s words. He still had a hard time thinking of Harlan Garrett as a happy man; or one who could experience joy.
Scott resumed speaking. “She died when I was ten,” he said. He breathed on the window, clouding the glass a second time; this time drawing a larger heart with his finger. “We never even realized she was so desperately ill; not until the very end.” He was quiet again. “Grandfather woke up, and she was in bed next to him; dead. I heard him calling out to her…” His voice broke and he took a moment to regain his composure. “I don’t think he ever recovered from losing her.”
They were quiet again, both of them gazing out at the far horizon. Johnny was the first to speak. “Must have been hard on her, losin’ two kids,” he said, the words coming in a near whisper.
“It was hard on them both,” Scott responded; stressing the word both, wanting Johnny to understand that it was not just his grandmother who had suffered. Then, his voice softening, “I was named for him.”
“Your uncle?” Johnny, whose chin was still nested atop his forearms as he stared out the window, turned slightly to look up at his brother.
Scott nodded. “His given name was Prescott; a family name on my Grandmother’s side.”
Johnny could not stop the snicker. “Prescott Lancer,” he laughed. “‘Bout right for a Boston dandy.”
Scott knuckle-punched his brother’s arm, but not too hard. “Thankfully, my mother managed to elicit a promise from Grandfather I was to be given a name that didn’t sound quite so pompous.” He smiled. “She called her brother ‘Scotty’.” He was quiet again, enjoying his brother’s closeness. These late night conversations had become somewhat of a ritual since their recent reunion, a time to connect and share things they would have shared growing up; as if the darkness made it easier to deal with the years of separation. He wondered if Murdoch was aware of their nighttime trysts, and the thought evoked a chuckle.
“Somethin’ funny,” Johnny asked.
“I was just wondering if Murdoch knows how much time we spend doing this,” Scott replied. “The private conversations we have after the house is quiet and everyone has gone to bed.”
Johnny pulled himself erect, stretching and scratching at his belly. “He knows,” he said, not one mote of doubt in his voice. “He’s like Mamácita,” he murmured; his face awash in the moonlight, the smile crinkling the skin at the corner of his eyes. “She knows every damned thing that goes on around here, most of it before it happens.”
Scott laughed, softly. “Like when you’re going to trespass into her kitchen to filch her freshly baked cookies, or try sneaking out of the house before Murdoch comes down for breakfast?” he teased.
“Yeah. Well, she’s wise to you, too, brother. Wasn’t my ass she smacked with that damned spoon Sunday when you tried forkin’ a piece of that roast before she got it on the dinner table,” Johnny crowed. He immediately sobered, the smile fading.
Somewhere beyond the house, a horse whinnied; and from the distance, another answered. Scott studied his brother’s face. “Another wild one from up in the hills?” he asked; mistaking his brother’s change in mood for something instinctual that concerned the horses which were now milling about in the paddock.
Johnny’s brow furrowed at the question. “Maybe.” He shrugged, dismissively. “Frank said he heard the black got away from Spencer at the livery, before he had a chance to sell him. Said Doc Hildenbrand had showed up to cut him, and the stallion jumped the fence and took off.” His mood lightened. “Someone showed up plannin’ to cut off my balls, I’d head for the hills, too.” Leaning forward to push the window all the way open, he stuck his head out for a better look at the corral; where the horses were still restlessly circling the enclosure. “Still think he could outrun anything we got here on the ranch,” he murmured wistfully.
Scott sensed the longing in his brother’s voice, and frowned. “You aren’t thinking about going after him, are you?” he asked.
Johnny shrugged. “Maybe.” He turned around, resting his elbows against the windowsill, his posture less relaxed than before as he leaned back. “You got a problem with that?”
“I think the question you should be asking is do you think Murdoch might have a problem with that?” Scott replied. Johnny’s face was now in the shadows, his head haloed by the light of the fully risen moon at his back. But Scott could tell from his brother’s posture Johnny was on the offensive.
“Thought you said he was over that,” Johnny responded tersely. “Hell, he took me back up to the mesa to chase the black’s mares.”
“True,” Scott said, nodding his head. “His way of making amends for the way he handled things with the Strykers. But if you’re planning on going after the black again…”
“You tellin’ me not to do it?” Christ. That’s all I need. Big brother givin’ me orders.
“I’m proposing you tell him what you’re planning before you just take off on some solitary quest without telling him, while leaving the rest of us to deal with him fretting about what you’re up to and when – if – you’re coming back.” Scott reached out to grasp his brother’s shoulder and felt him tense. “He still worries about that, you know.” We all worry about it, brother.
From the Great Room, the sound of the Grandfather clock beginning to toll stilled the two young men, both of them mentally counting the strikes. Ten, eleven, twelve.
“The bewitching hour,” Scott murmured, giving his brother a gentle shake.
“Fuckin’ midnight,” Johnny retorted. “Another five hours and Murdoch will be bangin’ on our doors hollerin’ at us to get down to the kitchen before Maria tosses our breakfast to the dogs.”
Scott’s grip on his brother’s shoulder tightened. “Promise me you won’t go looking for the stallion until you’ve talked to Murdoch, Johnny.” It was clear from his tone he wasn’t letting the subject drop. “You could ask him to go along, you know.”
Johnny pulled away and headed for his bed. “I don’t need no fuckin’ babysitter, Boston.”
Boston; always Boston when Johnny was on the prod. “I’m not suggesting that you do, brother. I’m just proposing you include him in your plans, show some willingness to do things his way for a change. Avoid the prospect of having him find out after the fact, along with lecture he’s bound to deliver because you broke one of the rules.”
“Fuck the rules,” Johnny growled. In his book, rules were the same damned thing as orders. He continued to undress, changing his mind about dropping his pants on the floor and hanging them on the foot of his bed.
“Then let me suggest a compromise,” Scott ventured. There was no way he was leaving his brother’s room until the matter of the stallion was settled. “I’ll go with you, help you catch the black.” He extended his right hand.
Johnny eyes narrowed. He had the feeling he was about to be snookered. “Why?”
“Why not?” Scott grinned. “Maria isn’t going to keep you housebound forever,” he continued. “It’s going to take some time to follow the Ribbon to its source when we’re checking for any flooding or blockage, and we won’t be all that far from the mesa. We can take our time; spend the weekend looking for the stallion. By now, he’s trying to gather what’s left of his harem, and with any luck we can catch him while he’s on the hunt.” He offered his hand again.
Tentatively, Johnny accepted the gesture. “And what about the old man?”
Scott’s fingers closed around his brother’s hand and he held on. He was still smiling. “We’ll explain to him what we’re planning, and get him to agree.”
Johnny let out a long breath. Score one for big brother. “You’re gonna be the one to tell him and get him to agree, right? ‘Cause I sure in hell don’t plan on goin’ down that road. If I tell him I was plannin’ on goin’ after the black, Murdoch’ll be jumpin’ down…” He stopped himself, knowing he had said more than he should have; giving away his original plan which had been to take off on his own without telling anyone what he intended doing.
“I’ll talk to Murdoch,” Scott promised, choosing to ignore his brother’s slip. He wandered back to Johnny’s bed and made himself comfortable.
Johnny stifled a yawn. He’d been up since the ass-crack of dawn after the near sleepless night he had spent brooding about the things he had overheard in the barn the previous day regarding his father and the housekeeper. The fact he was still a tad hung over from a day of drinking didn’t help. He scowled. “You plan on sleepin’ in here tonight, or are you gonna give me some fuckin’ peace?”
Scott lifted his head and grinned up at his sibling. “Just resting a bit before I give you a hand doing some quick tidying up,” he announced. He levered up from the bed and got to his feet, doing a quick perusal of the room. “Wouldn’t want Mamácita finding any little surprises, now would we?” With that, he immediately headed for the armoire on the far wall.
“Jesus, Scott, its damned near 12:30. Give it a rest, will ya?” the younger man groused.
Undeterred, Scott continued his search of the large dresser, reaching up to explore the area behind the ornate façade. “Aha!” he crowed, producing a near-empty bottle of tequila.
Johnny closed his eyes and shook his head. He had swiped a bottle of the good stuff from the downstairs liquor cabinet; stashing it away for future emergencies.
Scott shook the bottle. “Just about enough for final nightcap,” he observed.
“Gimme,” Johnny ordered, wiggling his fingers at his brother.
Moving to the bedside table, Scott ignored his brother’s request. He searched among the litter for a drinking glass, and poured the shot. “Here,” he said. There was no way he was going to drink out of a glass that was badly in need of washing. “I’ll drink from the bottle.”
“Jackass,” Johnny muttered, taking the glass. “Next you’ll be makin’ a fuckin’ toast.”
“Good idea!” Scott grinned. The smile faltered a bit but remained warm. “To family,” he said, watching his brother’s face. “To la familia,” he repeated. And then, his voice softening, “Para la familia de nuestros corazones.” (To the family of our hearts.)
Johnny hesitated, the words bringing back the image of Mamácita and the profound sentiment she had expressed after his apology; her tender mercy. His head bobbed a single time as he raised the glass and drained it in a single swallow.
He watched as Scott followed suit, sharing a smile when his brother – still toting the now empty bottle – headed for the bedroom door, reaching out to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder as he passed by. The door snicked shut and the room was quiet.
Johnny stood for a time, his right hand going to his shoulder as he touched the spot where Scott’s hand had briefly lingered, feeling something more than tequila warmth in the gesture. Maybe this family thing wasn’t as hard as he had first reckoned; and he shook his head. “La familia,” he murmured. His family.