dis·claim·er (d¹s-kl³“m…r) n. 1. A repudiation or denial of responsibility or connection. Don’t think so. I am absolutely responsible for Johnny getting into trouble, and as for a connection…I wish. 2. Law. A renunciation of one's right or claim. Ha!! I ain’t renouncin’ anything.
Scott Lancer stood in his bedroom, the box in his hand a reminder of vacations past. He moved closer to the window, opening the treasure chest, watching as the sun played across the interior. Iridescent colors radiated from the box as he turned it and allowed the rays of an early morning sun to play across the contents. So engrossed was he in the kaleidoscope of color, he failed to hear the soft whisper of socked feet across the bare wood floor.
“What’cha got there, gringo?” Johnny Lancer stuck a rigid forefinger in his brother’s back, his voice guttural and slightly accented: his over-the-top impression of a border bandito. With his left hand, he grabbed for the box, only to be rewarded with a solid elbow to his stomach that doubled him over.
It didn’t help that Scott was taller. The blond Bostonian danced away from his younger brother, the small box in his right hand held high above his head. “Nothing you’d be interested in, little brother!” The smile fired blue-grey eyes set off by a spring tan, and he spun away, bolting for the door.
Johnny straightened, his right hand still cradling his belly. In hot pursuit, he chased after the older man, losing his footing as he sprinted toward the stairway. The polished floor was every bit as slippery as the banister he intended to mount, and it appeared that Scott was getting away. Not giving a damned about “the rules”, he hoisted himself up on the banister sidesaddle, pushing himself off and aiming with deadly precision.
Like a torpedo, he shot down the balustrade, arriving at the bottom of the stairs just as Scott turned to face him. There was nothing he could do to stop the impending collision, and he called out to his brother, ordering -- suggesting -- that the man back up. “Better move it, Boston!”
Only there was no room. Murdoch entered the vestibule, coming in through the wide front door from the yard at exactly the same time Johnny decided to tuck and roll. He closed his eyes against the inevitable. “Oh, shit.”
There were three Lancers sprawled on the hard tiled floor. One of them was not laughing. It was not good.
Johnny rolled off his brother; who promptly rolled off their father. Somehow, Scott was still holding the damned box, which he had just snapped shut. Like his younger brother, he was no longer laughing. At least not aloud.
Reaching out, Johnny offered his hand to his father, not sure it was the wisest move; surer still, it would have been a fatal mistake not to make the offer. He smiled, fairly radiating sunshine, the blue eyes dancing. “Mornin’, Old…”
Sensing more calamity, Scott instantly put his hand on his father’s elbow. “Here, sir, let me help you.” He shot a quick, cautionary look at his sibling and then concentrated on lifting his father’s considerable bulk from the floor.
Six foot five, without an ounce of spare flesh on his massive frame, Murdoch Lancer was an imposing figure. Normally fair skinned like his eldest son, at this particular moment his face was a canvas painted a deep shade of red, and it was getting darker. It seemed that he was unable to speak, his jaws tensing and relaxing, his blue eyes now the color of slate.
Unfortunately for Johnny, who was edging toward the kitchen, the patriarch’s muteness was a temporary thing. “John!!” Murdoch’s voice boomed into the early morning quiet, the affect similar to the first rumbles of a major plate shift. “We’ve had this discussion before, young man,” he was brushing his pants off, “and I thought I made it very clear that there was to be an end to this foolishness!”
Johnny thought there was a good possibility that if his father kept shouting, California would break off from the rest of the western territories and become an island; not necessarily a good place to be when the Old Man was on a rant. A diversion was needed. Now. “Scott’s hidin’ something!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at his elder brother.
Murdoch’s gaze swung to his eldest son, his brow furrowing. “Scott?”
Son number one was not amused, but he did have an appreciation for Johnny’s wily ways. Murdoch’s tone had softened and, for now, the china was safe. “Well, sir, I had intended it as a surprise.” He showed his father the box he was holding in his hand, intentionally turning his back to his brother; at the same time effectively hiding just exactly it was what he was holding.
Johnny heard the box click open, but -- between Scott’s wise-ass ploy and his father’s broad shoulders -- he couldn’t see a damned thing. Curiosity began the slow claw that always scratched at him when he wanted to see or know something; it didn’t matter what. Something lying in the dirt, a wild horse he hadn’t ridden (yet), a new girl at the cantina. But right now it was that damned box, and whatever it was that had the Old Man so fucking intrigued.
The younger man was considering his options. On one hand, Murdoch seemed to have completely forgotten the pile-up at the bottom of the stairs. A good thing. On the other hand, Scott -- well, Scott’s box -- was getting all the attention. Maybe a good thing, although Johnny wasn’t sure, exactly, how he felt about that. What the hell, he thought. He moved forward, choosing to elbow his way in on Scott’s left.
Feathers. Johnny’s eyes narrowed, and he scratched his head. He reached out to touch one of the little clusters of miniscule multicolored feathers, only to have Scott slap his fingers. He tried again, with his other hand, and this time it was Murdoch that smacked the offending digits. “Huntin’ trophies, big brother?” he asked, making no effort at all to hide the ridicule.
“Flies,” Murdoch answered, no small amount of awe in his voice.
Johnny leaned forward. “Dead flies?” Again, he made the mistake of actually trying to touch the things.
Scott pulled the box away. Murdoch laughed. “Fishing flies, Johnny,” he said. His tone was much, much softer now. There was the same quality in his voice that was there when he was waxing nostalgic about Scotland and the fables about his childhood. Reverence.
Together, Scott and Murdoch headed for the great room; Murdoch’s arm around Scott’s shoulder. “It’s been years, Scott. Why, the last time I actually did any fly fishing, William and I…”
“I remember you telling me, sir,” Scott interrupted fondly. “That’s why I had Grandfather send them. Oh, and the rods and the creels; some new waders.”
Even the smell of fresh biscuits from the kitchen couldn’t pull Johnny away from what was transpiring. Feeling abandoned, he followed behind his father and his brother. Creel. What the hell was a ‘creel’? Annoyed, he said, “What the hell’s a fuckin’ creel?”
Of course, Teresa just had to come through the French doors from the garden, right when he asked the question.
“John!!” Murdoch and Scott roared the word in unison.
It was surprising how much Scott and his father could sound so much alike when they were pissed off. Johnny closed his eyes, his fingers massaging the place on his forehead where the headache was kicking its way into his brain. “Lo siento, Teresa,” he whispered. It wasn’t enough, and he knew it. “I’m sorry, Teresa. I apologize for cussin’.” His shoulders rose as he took a deep breath, and he chanced a look at his father and brother. Both of them were scowling, but their expressions were easing. Thankfully, the apology had been enough for Teresa, who excused herself and headed for the kitchen. He decided to try again, mindful of his choice of words. “Could someone please tell me what a… a creel is?”
Scott’s expression changed, ever so slightly. “It’s a basket,” he said; “a wicker basket you carry when you’re fly fishing; to keep your catch.” He smiled, that sneaky smile he used when he was planning something. “The flies are used as bait,” he actually had the cajones to lift the box up and allow a small look. “You affix them to your lines, and then you cast…”
“You’re talking about fishin’?” Johnny asked.
“Fly fishing!” Murdoch said, grinning like a man who just found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Johnny stared at his father’s face. There it was again, that warm smile and the furry voice that could drone on for hours; the Scottish burr returning as his father waxed nostalgic. ‘The waters there are crystal clear and clean, fit for fish and the brewing of the finest liquor on God’s green earth…’ -- never mind, Johnny thought, that up stream some wooly cow or sheep was taking a dump -- ‘… and so sweet to the taste.’
Scott was speaking again. “So I thought, sir, since it’s Saturday and everything is caught up, we could try out the flies up on Ribbon Creek. I’ve seen trout…” he was measuring with his hands outstretched, the box of flies now firmly ensconced in Murdoch’s right hand, their father actually fondling the feathers, “…this big.”
Johnny flopped down on the couch. “So, when are we leavin’?”
Murdoch looked at his youngest son, and then swung his gaze to Scott. The two men exchanged a long look, their expressions identical. Shock first, then abject horror, and finally a crafty, mutual slyness. Murdoch was the first to speak. “Johnny, this kind of fishing requires …” his brow furrowed as he searched his mind for the appropriate words “… patience, a great deal of patience.” The sport, he knew, also required dexterity and a smooth graceful movement of the hand and wrist; qualities his youngest son had in abundance. He shook those thoughts away, and continued. “It means standing quietly, very quietly,” he stressed the words, “sometimes for hours.”
Scott picked up the litany. “Yes. And standing in water -- cold water -- for a long, long time.” He chanced a look at his younger brother. It wasn’t working, so he played his trump card. “And I’ve only got two rods,” he announced, holding up the proper amount of digits.
The youngest Lancer was having none of it. If everyone else was going fishing, he damned well wasn’t going to stay behind under Cirpriano’s thumb to pick up the slack. Not when his uncle was still pissed off about the little incident in the bath house. “I’ll watch,” he declared, folding his arms across his chest.
“Now, Johnny,” Murdoch’s tone was fatherly; cajoling. “With your brother and me gone, it will be up to you to help keep things running.” He couldn’t bring himself to use the word smoothly. He decided to sweeten the offer. “You’ll be in charge.” Check.
The young man’s eyes flashed with sudden inspiration. He shook his head. “That ain’t happenin’. Remember? I ain’t legal yet.” Check, and mate.
Scott grimaced. “You don’t like to fish, Johnny.” It never ceased to amaze him how his little brother could manage to bite them in the ass with their own small triumphs. They had recently used California law regarding legal majority to keep Johnny on a tight leash and he was constantly looking for ways to make them pay. There was also the memory of their first fishing trip: the time when Johnny’s pole ended up in the pond and he stood shooting the fish in the shallows. Not much left of a twelve inch cat fish with two or three .44 caliber slugs in its body.
Murdoch wiped a broad hand across his face. He could see the early morning sun filtering through his fingers as it was climbing on the horizon. The little voice inside his head said don’t do this, but he chose to ignore it. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “All right. You can come.” He heard Scott’s sigh. “But you have to promise you’ll…”
“…just watch,” his number two boy interrupted brightly.
The short trip up the trail through the pasture and small canyon did not bode well. First, there was Johnny’s reaction to the rubber waders that Scott had slung over the pack animal; the pair he had ordered for Murdoch that looked like they’d fit the beanstalk’s giant. The fancy little wicker creels brought yet another fit of boisterous laughter; the containers looking way too much like Teresa’s sewing basket. And the rods… They were longer than the pack mule’s body, and pretty fragile looking at that.
Actually, the only thing that merited Johnny’s real attention was the gaff; the wicked hook used for landing the anticipated catch. It wasn’t as big as the ones he had seen in San Francisco, but it was impressive, and more than once he dropped back to finger the piece; never failing to remark “Man, Scott, you could gut a mermaid with that thing, or a jabalí silvestre! (wild boar) Maybe we could go huntin’ in Mexico…!”
All Murdoch could do was grit his teeth and remember the greased pig chase at the last stockman’s barbeque hosted by Lancer and his younger son’s participation. He never had figured out how the minister’s daughter happened to become involved; or how Green River’s sheriff, Val Crawford, ended up falling flat on his face in the hog wallow. “Johnny?”
Scott turned to look back, only to see his brother heading back toward the ranch at a ground-eating canter. Hopeful, he reached out to touch his father’s sleeve. “Johnny’s heading back to the house, sir.”
Encouraged, Murdoch touched his heels to his gelding’s side, picking up the pace. “If we’re lucky,” he grinned, “maybe he’s decided this really isn’t going to be his cup of tea!”
Scott’s horse instinctively picked up its gait to catch up with its trail mate. “Do you think it might have something to do with the fact we haven’t exactly encouraged any conversation?” If Scott felt guilty about ignoring his brother, it didn’t show.
Murdoch never had a chance to answer. Behind them came the thundering hoof beats of a horse at a dead run. As Johnny came up beside his father, he was crouched against Barranca’s neck, encouraging the horse into a full run as he straightened in the saddle. He looped the reins around the saddle horn, rising slightly in his stirrups as he let go of the lines, his arms outstretched.
Scott whispered his name, Johnny, hoping his sibling would not take it to the next level. No such luck. He saw his brother’s posture change again, Johnny kicking loose of the stirrups and hiking himself up until he was standing in the saddle. Horse and rider disappeared over the hill.
“My God,” Murdoch rasped. “Is he insane!?”
Scott sucked in a deep breath. “No, sir. He’s just trying to drive us insane.”
The elder Lancer’s face was drained of color. “What do you think it would cost to send him to military school? The Citadel, perhaps.”
The blond turned to face his father fully. Perhaps Johnny had already succeeded in his goal of pushing their father over the edge. “Sir,” he began, keeping his voice evenly modulated -- he remembered hearing somewhere that was the best way to deal with someone who was becoming unhinged -- “surely you don’t think that sending Johnny to a place where he would have access to light field artillery is really a good idea?”
Murdoch paused a beat, regaining a measure of control as visions of Johnny -- carrying the Stars and Bars of a renewed Confederacy in one hand and a saber in the other -- led a charge and prevailed. He turned, facing his eldest. “When we get to the stream, I’ll tell him how impressed I am with his horsemanship.”
Relieved, number one son laughed. “That will take the wind out of his sails, sir.”
Johnny was already at the stream, scoping out the camp site. It had been agreed that this was an overnighter; so the fly fishermen could try their luck early in the morning as well. Barranca was ground hitched not far from his rider, and was giving his own opinion of just exactly where they should be sleeping. The palomino raised its tail, dumping a load of apples. Johnny decided this would be the ideal place for Scott’s bedding area.
His father and brother trotted into the clearing, the horses coming to a halt unbidden as they came up even with Johnny’s horse; the usual snorting and whickering going on as the stable mates greeted each other. Johnny watched as his father and brother dismounted, waiting for the screaming to start.
Murdoch stretched, his right hand pressed into the small of his back. He was smiling when he finally faced his youngest. “That was a fine ride, son! I don’t recall seeing anything like that since Piccadilly Circus in London!! I believe it was a young lady…no, two sisters, actually.” He pointed to his hips. “They were wearing these little skirts. Pink, I think…”
Scott had dismounted and was leaning against his horse’s neck, his back to Johnny; his shoulders shaking. He recovered and was finally able to join the others.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. This wasn’t going exactly as he planned. He figured the old man would throw a royal fit, yelling at him for his recklessness; making him mad enough to cancel this dumb fishing trip. His gaze drifted to his brother’s face. Smug. Scott was looking too goddamned smug. His eyes shifted back to his father. “So, would you like to see me do it again?” He turned, actually intending to mount Barranca for a second go round. Even though his balls were still sore from the little timing problem he had once he and Barranca had crested the hill.
It finally occurred to Murdoch what was really going on. It was Saturday night; the traditional lets-go-to-town-and-raise-hell-night, and Johnny still actually held some small hope that was going to happen. He shook his head, laying a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder. “No, Johnny; that won’t be necessary. It’s time for you to set up camp.”
Fuck!! Johnny was slowly beginning to realize that there was a new game in town, and he wasn’t quite sure of the rules. Madrid’s voice crept up from the deep recesses of his mind. Do it to them before they do it to you. Only problem is, he hadn’t quite figured out what -- in this case -- it actually was.
He was roused from his musings by Scott’s prodding. “So, brother, do you need any help?”
Johnny reached out, taking the proffered bedroll. “No, Scott. You and Murdoch go on ahead. I’ll get us all fixed up proper; get a fire goin’ and everything.” He patted his belly. “Can’t wait,” he smiled. Not that he actually thought they were going to catch anything. He’d made damned sure he’d raided Maria’s kitchen before they left; and he had no intention of going hungry. Not that he intended to share when they came up empty-handed.
Suspicious, Scott studied the younger man’s face, his right eyebrow rising slightly. There was too much mischief dancing behind the sapphire eyes. Johnny was going to bear watching. “Well, thank you, little brother.” And then, turning to his father. “Sir. Perhaps before we commence; a small wager?”
The older man cocked his head. “How small?” he smiled.
The blond seemed to be thinking it over. His face was the picture of innocence. “Ten dollars to the man who catches the first fish,” it was obvious he had played this game before, “and whoever has the least amount of fish at sunset cleans the day’s catch?”
“Agreed,” Murdoch declared, extending his hand to his elder son. The bet, he knew, was a challenge, and he welcomed it. He nodded towards the creek.
Before leaving the ranch, the tall rancher had resurrected from a trunk in the attic a canvas vest with deep pockets and a suede patch at the left shoulder that had small prick holes from a stash of flies he had used in his youth. A half dozen of Scott’s flies now adorned the patch. He began donning the hip-length waders.
Johnny watched as Scott mirrored their father’s actions, still not convinced this fly fishing shit was the way to secure a meal. But what the hell, it was better than sitting around the Great Room on a spring evening watching horseflies fucking on the window panes.
Ribbon Creek widened at this particular spot in the small meadow, the water tumbling across the native rock making small rapids that were alive with fingerlings and tadpoles. Johnny began reconnoitering the area. Using the small shovel Scott had provided, he dug a shallow fire pit. Then he went to waters edge, pausing long enough to remove his boots and socks, the water cool against his skin as he waded into the stream taking stones from the stream bed. The constant force of the water washed the stones clean on top, polishing them and smoothing the croquet ball-sized rocks. It was easy enough to collect them, and he used them to construct a boundary around the fire pit.
Preparing the area for their bedrolls was the next major campaign in Johnny’s renewed battle plan. He cut some lower branches from a small stand of coniferous trees skirting a large boulder, stripping the bark and using it to secure the small limbs together for use as a broom and began policing the area. He swept away the majority of the droppings left by Barranca, leaving one or two in place. These he tramped down with his boots. He spread Scott’s blanket over the remainder; dumping his brother’s saddle at the end nearest the fire pit.
Almost as an afterthought, he placed Murdoch’s blanket next to Scott’s, and his own bedroll on the opposite flank. Then he wandered over to the side of the stream. Momentarily entranced, he watched and listened as his father and brother performed this strange, intriguing dance. They stood side by side midstream, their stance identical; their upper torsos and arms moving in a compatible rhythm as they cast their lines, reeled in, and then cast again. The air seemed to sing.
Johnny hunkered down, shaking his head. The last time they had fished together, it had been a totally different experience. The poles had been less flexible, there had been no reel, and both Scott and Murdoch had constantly scolded him about how important it was to toss the line into the stream and then be still, very still, and to wait. And now, here they were, tossin’ the line out, reelin’ the line in, tossin’ the line out… It was making him dizzy.
They weren’t catchin’ any damned fish any better this way than they’d done the other. He sighed. Without thinking, he reached down and scooped up a handful of pebbles. He spread his hand, letting the small rocks trickle through his fingers until only two stones were left: two perfectly oval, flat pieces of water-smoothed pyrite. Hefting them in his palm, he smiled at the bright glimmer of fool’s gold. Then, flexing his wrist, he tossed the first stone and watched as it skipped across the water, four perfect skims; directly in front of Scott.
“Johnny!” Scott’s hoarse whisper sounded unusually loud above the final plop-plop of the second stone his brother had just tossed.
The brunet shoved back his hat and shrugged. “What!?” he snorted.
There was no break in the smooth back and forth swish of the now-wet fishing line as the two older men continued to cast. “You’re supposed to be watching,” Murdoch scolded, “not talking or skipping stones.” Like Scott, he was whispering.
“Seem to remember someone…” Johnny dragged out the word, looking directly at his brother, “…tellin’ me fish don’t have no ears,” he groused loudly.
Scott’s head whipped around and he glared at his sibling; remembering the conversation. Johnny was like a five year old when it came to asking the question why; about everything. Although he soaked up new information like a sponge, he was also an expert at selective amnesia. “Vibration, Johnny. They sense vibration.” His words were tinged with the annoyed big brother tone he sometimes used and he was still whispering. “Your voice, the rocks striking the water…” Suddenly, he stopped speaking, his attention drawn to a flash of silver as a large trout broke water.
“Whoeee!” Johnny shouted. He stood up and headed up the shore to the place where the gaff was perched against a fallen tree. Grabbing the hook, he splashed into the water, heading for his brother.
Scott was doing an excellent job of playing with the fish. He had set the hook and was now taking up the slack in the line; his rod bent nearly back against itself as he worked the reel. Murdoch, following the etiquette of fly-fishing, was reeling in; carefully maneuvering his line away from Scott’s so his eldest son could continue the fight. That was, after all, the real thrill of fly fishing: the tenuous link between fisherman and fish, the slim cord connecting the true sportsman to his quarry.
Johnny was standing next to his brother, at Scott’s left shoulder; brandishing the gaff. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand what he was seeing. The damned fish was hooked -- it was apparent every time the trout broke water like a bronc coming out of the chute -- but Scott obviously wasn’t paying attention. He would draw the fish in and then play out the line, allowing the speckled giant to run, and then reeling it in.
The brunet cast a sidewise look at his brother, wondering if his sibling knew what the hell he was doing. “Jesus, brother! Just haul it in!!” To make his point, he swung at the trout with the gaff; missing when Scott purposely manipulated the fish in the opposite direction.
It was more than the younger man could stand. In spite of his father’s rather harsh Johnny!, the youth plunged forward, intent on doing what his brother was obviously incapable of doing. Reaching out with his left hand, he grabbed the fragile string, wrapped it once around his fingers and yanked. The line snapped. He’d never even got the chance to use the damned gaff!
It was, Murdoch thought, like watching the final dominos tumble. His usually graceful eldest son toppled backwards, his younger, even more agile son losing his footing on the moss slick rocks: both young men briefly disappearing beneath the surface of the water. The trout was long gone. Sighing, the tall Scot tucked his rod beneath his right elbow and waded in. It was a struggle, but he managed to haul both of his sons to their feet.
If looks could kill, Murdoch Lancer was a dead man. Scott -- his wet hair slicked against his forehead -- speared his sire with a glare worthy of a hired assassin.
“Son,” the older man started, his tone apologetic.
“You, sir,” Scott interrupted, poking a long finger against his father’s chest, “are the one who said he could come.” Hitching up the long waders -- which were now filled with water -- the blond still managed to execute a precise about face and marched toward the shore.
Repentant, Johnny stared after his brother. “Think maybe I should…?”
Murdoch held up his left hand; effectively cutting the younger man off. “March,” he growled, pointing a long finger at the shoreline.
Johnny’s boots were full of water, too. With as much dignity as he could muster, he followed in his elder brother’s wake; squish, squish, squish.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was stoking the fire. Scott had changed into dry clothes and socks and was now stringing a line between two saplings for the wet clothing; including his brother’s. Johnny was huddled next to the fire pit, wrapped in a blanket. Wisely, he was being very quiet.
Scott was still fuming. They hadn’t been at the stream even two hours and Johnny had managed to create total havoc. The tall blond was standing beside the fire now, holding the damp waders just above the flames; patting the rubber vamps, testing them for warmth. Satisfied, he sat down on the ground and began pulling them on.
“Son?” Murdoch decided to risk speaking to his eldest. He watched as the young man struggled to pull the still damp waders up his long legs.
“I came to fish, and fish I shall,” the blond declared stubbornly. He hiked the shoulder straps into place. Resolutely, he picked up his rod and headed back into the stream.
Johnny was about to say something but immediately changed his mind when he saw the look on his brother’s face. He’d seen the same look once before: that day beside the river when Scott was cleaning up after his fight with Pardee’s men. The same day Scott had knocked him flat with a single haymaker. Had to admit it: big brother could pack a wallop, and he sure in hell didn’t back away from anyone. Not even Johnny Madrid.
Respect or not, the memory didn’t stop Johnny from being pissed at his brother. Who the hell would have thought that fishin’ for trout was some fuckin’ game? That part of the dance was playin’ with the stupid fish? And what’s with this shit of bringin’ a change of clothes for an overnight campin’ trip and not raggin’ on me to do the same? What the hell good is there in havin’ a big brother if he’s gonna dump me into the water with no warnin’ and without so much as a fuckin’ ‘excuse me’?
The brunet sniffled and wiped his nose on the corner of his blanket. Great. Now the Old Man’s lookin’ at me! Next thing, he’s gonna be checkin’ to see if I’ve got a fuckin’ fever.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny had to admit, supper -- well, the late afternoon lunch -- was pretty good. Scott and the Old Man had managed to bag a fair amount of good sized speckled trout; which Murdoch had cooked to perfection along with a skillet full of potatoes fried with wild scallions. Hard thing, though. Eatin’ a fish when it was starin’ back at you. Johnny figured it was a Boston thing.
“Drink this,” Murdoch ordered, handing his younger son a cup of Maria’s ‘special’ tea. There wasn’t a man on the ranch that didn’t carry some Maria’s medicinal teas and poultices in their saddlebags for emergencies.
The younger man cringed. “Jeez, Murdoch; I drink that after eatin’ all that food and I’ll be sh… runnin’ into the bushes all night answerin’ nature’s call.” He risked a smile and patted his full belly. “Wouldn’t want to be wastin’ all that good cookin’ you done.”
Murdoch wasn’t buying it. “‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’”, he intoned, paraphrasing a quote from the Book of Proverbs. In his mind he was visualizing a second bit of Scripture: spare the rod, spoil the child. He shook the thought away. “I’m not taking you home to Maria with even a trace of a fever,” he added; shoving the tin mug into the boy’s hand.
Johnny looked over his father’s shoulder to where Scott was cleaning up the dishes from supper, not one bit amused at the smile he saw playing across his brother’s lips. “Scott got wet,” he argued. “You makin’ him drink that damned stuff, too?”
“Your brother had the good sense to bring a change of clothes and dry socks,” Murdoch answered. He pushed the cup into his son’s hands. “All of it; and not in a single swallow,” he admonished.
The end of Johnny’s snot pump began to tingle; reminding him that if he didn’t do as he was told Murdoch was in all likelihood going to employ the old tried and true nose pinch to get him to swallow: just as he had done when he was flat on his back and healing from Pardee’s bullet. Knowing argument would be fruitless, he took the cup; at the same time calling out to his sibling. “You gonna fish more tonight, brother?”
Murdoch turned to face his eldest, awaiting Scott’s answer; unaware that behind him, Johnny was dumping the majority of the tea on the ground. When Scott shook his head, Murdoch turned his attention back again to his younger boy. Johnny was blowing into the cup. Making a face, he made a big deal of chugging the remaining few drops of the brew, and then handed the now empty mug off to his sire for the customary inspection.
“There,” Murdoch smiled. “Was that so difficult?”
Johnny grinned up at his father. “Nah,” he admitted. “What we doin’ next?”
Scott had finished the cleaning up chores, and was hanging the two cast iron skillets he had seasoned on two of the top spokes of tripod; well above the fire. “I brought the cribbage case and a new deck of cards,” he called. He smiled across at his brother. “You are going to give Murdoch and me a chance to get even, aren’t you?”
Johnny’s earlier peevishness at his elder brother immediately vanished. Besides, his clothes were dry now and he didn’t have to sit around naked beneath an itchy blanket with all the night-time critters tryin’ to climb up his exposed nether regions.
“Sure, brother,” he answered, scrambling to the clothesline and tugging free the fire-warmed shirt, long john and britches. Murdoch had taught him the game when he was recovering from his last bout of pneumonia and he’d become quite a good player.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was seven dollars and fifty cents richer when Murdoch and Scott finally announced they had had enough. The young man rolled over on his back, his hands behind his head as he stared up at the stars. Seven dollars and fifty cents, he thought, laughing to himself. He’d gotten more enjoyment out of taking the Old Man for five bucks at cribbage than he’d gotten from the thousand dollar payout for an hour of his time when he had first come home. And the cribbage game had taken a hell of a lot longer.
From his earliest memory, money had always been a transitory and fascinating affair for Johnny Madrid; an thing of feast or famine. When his Mama was still alive -- when she had danced in the cantinas south of the border -- he had, even as a near toddler, been in awe of the bits of silver and gold men tossed to her. By the time he was five, he knew the difference in denomination and value; was keenly aware of the degree of power that came with cash in your pocket.
But the flow of cash had never been constant. Not for Johnny Madrid, and even less so for his Mama. But their attitudes had been the same. Here today and gone tomorrow.
The youth turned over on his side, facing his father’s bedroll; watching the even rise and fall of the older man’s chest. The ironic smile came again. Those words pretty much summed up what the majority of what his life had been; how it had been with money between jobs. How it had been with his mother. He yawned. Here today and gone tomorrow. He pulled the blanket up around his face to stifle the laughter. Life sure in hell was funny. He hadn’t had so much as a peso in his pocket when the rurales had captured him in Mexico and hauled him in front of the firing squad -- that was the hell of being on the losing side -- and now he had seven dollars fifty cents US in his pocket (his father’s and his brother’s money to boot!) and he felt like a king.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott blushed a bright red as he realized his father was watching him; embarrassed at being caught pressing the back of his hand against Johnny’s forehead. Quietly, he straightened, still in his stockinged feet as he levered himself up from the ground beside his brother’s bedroll. He stepped away from his still sleeping sibling, reaching out to accept the proffered cup of coffee.
“So,” Murdoch grinned, “does he have a fever?”
The blond moved closer to the fire. “No, sir,” he answered, the words coming softly. “That water was pretty cold.” He nodded at the river.
Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched. Scott’s voice was a tad lower than usual; perhaps even a bit hoarse. “Am I going to have to brew up a cup of Maria’s tea for you, son?” he asked, teasing.
Scott stopped mid-sip, lowering the cup as he considered his answer. Before he had a chance to reply, his brother piped up.
“You are soundin’ a bit scratchy there, big brother,” Johnny observed. He stood up, shaking his blankets off as he scratched himself. “I think he needs a cup o’ that tea, Murdoch.” When he saw his brother’s frown, he kept at it. “You made me drink it,” he accused, pouting when his father seemed not to be listening. “Only seems fair, if I gotta drink that sh… crap, Scott should have ta drink it, too.” His gaze shifted to his brother. “‘S’posed to be an example, ya know.” For reinforcement, he turned again to his father. “Ain’t that right?”
The big Scot was chewing on his bottom lip, trying in vain to stop the smile. He gave up, deciding to take a drink of coffee before answering his younger son. “You do know, Scott, that is part of an elder brother’s job,” he said finally. “Setting a good example for your younger brother, teaching him right from wrong, showing him how to make the right choices…” He took another long drink of the java.
“Is that right?” Scott asked. It was a rhetorical question and he didn’t wait for an answer. He was looking directly at his brother. “I do not have a cold, or the beginnings of a cold,” he stated; not about to admit that his throat was a bit scratchy. Johnny was smirking at him; standing atop his bedroll and rocking back and forth on his heels and tiptoes, his hands clasped behind his back. The blond knew his brother was twiddling his thumbs. “I am also not the one who was lacking in foresight; who failed to pack a change of clothes or dry socks, with nothing to wear in the event an accident happened.”
Johnny’s eyes brightened. “There you go,” he drawled. “If you’d been doin’ your job as my big brother, you’d of reminded me to bring extra.”
Scott laughed at his brother’s audacity. “I’ll make you a deal,” he began. “I’ll drink the tea, if…” he repeated the word, “…if you stay quiet while Murdoch and I are fishing.”
The younger man was now standing stock still. He had resigned himself to the fact his brother and father were going to do some more damned fly fishing, and he wasn’t happy about it. The displeasure was obvious in his voice. “That’s blackmail,” he frowned. “The Old Man didn’t offer me no deal. It was drink the tea, or else.”
It was Scott’s turn to smirk, but the blue eyes were twinkling. “There you go,” he mocked. “As your elder, wiser and bigger brother; I’m teaching you the noble art of negotiation.”
Murdoch had been watching the bantering between his boys. Although he was amused by much of what was transpiring, the last remark by Scott wasn’t all that welcome. The idea of Johnny learning to negotiate wasn’t all that appealing; especially since the boy was so adept at arguing. “There will be no negotiation, young man,” he announced, spearing his eldest with a baleful glare. “You will drink the tea.” When he saw the surprise on Scott’s face, he raised his right hand. “The matter is not open for discussion.”
Johnny laughed. Aloud. Snorting, actually, and damned near dancing a jig. Scott swung his gaze to his younger sibling, his mouth dropping open as Johnny had the nerve to actually stick out his tongue; right before he quietly chanted nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nahhh.
Before Scott had a chance to respond, Murdoch shoved a mug of Maria’s tea into his son’s empty left hand. Unable to stop himself, the Lancer sire leaned in, smiled and whispered, “No tea, no fishing.”
Scott almost choked on the herbal tea, but he dutifully drank the vile tasting brew. Finished, he offered the cup up for inspection, first to his father and then to his pain-in-the-ass sibling. Then, as if he had simply just enjoyed a cup of properly steeped Earl Grey, he went to the river bank, rinsed out the mug; swiped it dry with his clean handkerchief and returned in to fire. “Ready, sir?” he asked.
Murdoch turned to his youngest. “Now you see how that was done, son?” he asked cheerfully. “No arguments, no complaints, no faces. Just taking his medicine with grace and cleaning up after himself.” His eyes narrowed as he said the next. “And you will be quiet while we are fishing.” With that, he began gearing up.
Johnny hated it when someone actually beat him at his own game; and the Old Man was getting pretty damned good at not only playing, but more than often coming out on top. “We ain’t had breakfast yet,” he groused, addressing his sire. “Ain’t you the one always goin’ on about how it’s the most important meal of the day?”
The big Scot had just finished putting on his own waders. “There is a pan of warm biscuits by the fire,” he said, nodding towards the cooking pit, “a fresh pot of coffee, and some side meat. I’m sure that will hold you until Scott and I have caught your lunch.”
‘Until Scott and I have caught your lunch…’ Johnny mimicked under his breath.
Murdoch paused in his chore, hesitating before putting the left hand strap of his waders completely in place across his shoulder. “Do you have something you want to say, John?”
Johnny was now hunkered down beside the fire, pouring himself a cup of coffee; his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. “Just sayin’ I hope you catch a bunch,” he fibbed. For good measure, he lifted his head, flashing a toothy smile.
Scott shook his head, knowing his father was a sucker for that particular grin. Without saying anything, he headed for the water.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was really beginning to regret that he nagged his father and brother into taking him fishing. He’d cleaned up the camp, groomed thoroughly all three of the horses; and then -- in desperation -- actually jerry-rigged himself a makeshift pole and line so that he, too, could go fishing. He wasn’t going to use any of those fuckin’ flies, either; as if the Old Man or Scott were going to part with even one of those damned things. Nope! He’d found himself a couple of nice plump grubs beneath a rotting tree limb; right beside the stream.
Midstream, Scott clenched his teeth. Peripherally, just to his left, he could see his younger brother. Boots off and bare feet dangling in the water, Johnny was just about to cast out for a fourth time. He was aiming for exactly the same spot he had dropped his line on the three previous occasions: just mere inches from the place where Scott’s fly-line disappeared into the water. The blond knew it was intentional.
Slack-jawed, Murdoch Lancer watched as his elder son -- in one flawless movement -- reeled in his line, tucked his rod beneath his arm, and immediately began striding purposely towards the shore.
Johnny, seeing the look on his brother’s face, was now on his feet. Instinctively, he tossed his tree-branch fishing pole into the water and began backing up. He was laughing; backing away from his long-limbed brother, two steps to every one Scott was taking. Then, realizing he was in deep shit, Johnny turned and began to run.
Murdoch was now reeling in his line as well. He watched as Scott’s pace increased, tempted to call out, a slow smile coming as he saw the tall blond -- never once breaking stride -- bend to pick up his coiled lariat from beside his saddle.
Scott made the throw, the loop settling over his younger brother’s shoulders. The former Bostonian did himself proud. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled the rope tight; setting his feet as he yanked his kid brother to a complete stop and dumped him onto the hard-packed turf. His next move was just as calculating. He was on his brother in a heart beat, hogtieing the youth hand and foot; rising up and spreading his arms as if he had just completed a timed event at the local rodeo.
Johnny -- his hands and feet tied behind his back -- was struggling fiercely against the rope. “Goddammit, Scott!” he roared. “This ain’t funny, brother!” A stream of colorful curses in rapid-fire Spanish followed.
Midstream, Murdoch recast his line. Fighting a smile, he stared straight ahead to the place where the stream narrowed, the water gathering speed and force as it funneled and churned into a deep channel flecked with the familiar iridescent glimmer of schooling rainbow trout. Without turning his head, he addressed his eldest; who had just joined him. “Was that really necessary, son?” he asked.
Scott’s face was still flushed from the chase. “Since I plan to continue fishing, sir, yes, it was.”
Murdoch had just hooked a keeper. He began playing the fish; enjoying the familiar tug as he set the hook and the trout began its run for deeper water. Above the noise of the breakers, he could hear Johnny’s steady bellow. It was clear from what he was hearing his son had mastered the art of cursing in two languages. Johnny had let fly with more than a dozen choice words in both English and Spanish; not one duplicate amongst them. The older man sighed. “And it didn’t occur to you to also use a gag?”
The blond laughed. “Next time, sir,” he promised.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“And how many fish did you catch, Johnny?” Teresa smiled across at her brother, mischief lighting her hazel eyes. She was elbow deep in flour, helping Maria batter the egg-dipped fillets Scott and Murdoch had delivered for the evening meal.
Johnny had just snagged the third bit of raw dough from the corner of one of the biscuits Maria had just brushed with melted butter and set atop the oven to rise. “Kinda hard to catch fish when some assho… jackass … has you tied up like some bull calf about to get its balls cut off,” he grumbled. He was still pissed off at Scott over that one; but not as pissed as he was at his Old Man for chewing him out when he took a swing at his brother after Scott had untied him.
Teresa’s eyebrows rose. “Really?” she asked, feigning surprise. “Someone had you tied up?” She sucked in her lower lip, struggling to suppress the giggles as she heard Maria’s soft laughter. “Maybe next time you’ll catch some fish,” she cajoled; not one mote of genuine sympathy in her words or her voice.
Spiteful, Johnny hooked yet another pinch of sourdough; this time from a different corner of the pan. He silently wondered if anything went on at Lancer that Maria didn’t know about. Or Teresa, for that matter. She had an annoying habit of sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Next time.” Like he had any intention of every going fishing again.
Maria had turned away from the stove to gather up the slabs of fish Teresa had neatly arranged on the floured board on the table. Her eyes narrowed as she saw Johnny licking his finger tips; her gaze swinging to the pan of biscuits. She reached out; smoothing the nipped edges of the rolls Johnny had desecrated. “Juanito,” she warned.
Even with all her threats, tattling, scolding and copious swats to his behind with her wooden spoons, Johnny could never stay mad at Maria. He shrugged, risking a smile. “Couldn’t wait,” he wheedled; patting his stomach. “The Old Man…uh, Murdoch, wouldn’t let me have any lunch.” It was a small lie, well told.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They ate at the table in the Great Room. Maria had outdone herself; frying the lightly battered fish in butter she had seasoned with minced sweet onions and a touch of dry mustard. The addition of heavy cream to the pan drippings after the trout had finished cooking had created a rich sauce; the flavors mingling with the splash of white wine she added.
Scott and Murdoch seemed to go on forever about the woman’s efforts, declaring the meal a true feast. Johnny, on the other hand, was about to puke from all the talk about the “wonderful dinner; a repast worthy of the gods;” and, from Teresa, “the most wonderful fish I’ve ever tasted…”
“So, brother,” Scott saluted his younger sibling with an upraised wine glass, “what do you think of Maria’s efforts?”
Johnny shoved his plate away. He looked up; making sure the housekeeper had gone back to the kitchen. “Would’a liked it better if she’d cooked a steak,” he muttered.
Scott had just taken a sip of wine. Astounded, he put down his glass. “And this from the individual who told me -- not two days ago -- that if he had to eat even one more piece of beef, he was going to be sprouting horns and a tail.” In his mind, Scott was seeing not a bovine; but an impish minion of the devil: which is how he often pictured his younger brother.
Teresa’s censure was even more direct. She swatted her brother’s arm. “Johnny!” When he ignored her, she smacked him a second time. “You’re just jealous because Murdoch and Scott caught all the fish,” she teased.
“Am not!” he declared vehemently.
“Are too,” she immediately shot back, her back straightening.
Sensing things were about to get out of hand, Murdoch cleared his throat. “That’s enough,” he cautioned. “Both of you. I’m sure if Johnny set his mind to it, he could catch just as many fish as Scott or me.” His tone was that of a parent who was attempting to placate a peevish four-year old.
Teresa rose up from her chair, reaching out to take Johnny’s plate and piling it on her own as she began cleaning up. She canted her head, casting an unbelieving smirk in Johnny’s direction before turning to face her guardian, the smile blooming for his benefit. “Well, maybe if you gave him his pistol back,” she chirped. “But then there wouldn’t be very much of the fish left would there?”
“That’s it!” Johnny fumed. He reached out, grabbing a cold biscuit from the basket in the center of the table and drawing back.
Scott quickly rose up from his chair and leaned forward across the table, catching his brother’s arm before he could make the toss.
“What the Hell did you do that for!?” Johnny demanded. The petulant pout was magnificent; the younger man’s features all at once very much little boy.
“To prevent the beating,” Scott answered, nodding his head at the door leading to the kitchen. Wooden spoon tucked in the waistband of her apron, Maria had just come through the portal.
Johnny’s head dipped, his chin resting against his chest. Life had sure been a Hell of a lot easier when all he had to worry about was some yahoo callin’ him out to see who was faster. He snuck a look at the cook. Maria was not only fast on the draw, she was pretty damned sneaky, too. He’d found that out on more than one occasion when she’d snuck up on him from behind. Giving up, he put the roll he had been holding clenched in his fist down beside his plate and raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll be good,” he promised; risking a smile. “What’s for dessert?”
Scott laughed; aloud. Johnny, he decided, was absolutely incorrigible.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The week had passed in relative calm and Murdoch Lancer was enjoying the Sabbath. He chanced a look at his younger son. Johnny was seated at his right, all suited up in his Sunday best. Murdoch’s mouth was twitching in parental bemusement as he studied his son’s profile. Weekly attendance of church had become a family ritual since his sons had returned home, and while Scott had accepted the renewed tradition with his usual stoic calm, Johnny had worked overtime to avoid attending services. And he had been very creative in his excuses; especially on this very morning.
Johnny was in his stockinged feet; half in and half out of the doorway to his father’s bedroom. He was wearing his suit pants and the white shirt Maria had tailored for him while he was recuperating from Pardee’s bullet.
‘Something on your mind, son?’ Murdoch asked. He was putting the finishing touch on his jacket; smoothing the collar in place. Turning, he faced his off-spring, knowing full well what was on the younger man’s mind.
‘Ya know,’ Johnny drawled, toying with his loose tie. His eyes were focused on the kaleidoscope of colors that spread across the polished flooring; tracing the light’s source back to its origin, the beveled leaded glass that framed the window on the northeast wall. ‘Scott says, me bein’ raised Catholic and all, I need a…’ his brow furrowed as he recalled the words, ‘…special dispensation to attend a protestant church. From the Pope,’ he finished, lifting his head to offer a I win smile at his father.
Murdoch frowned slightly. While Johnny had been baptized into the faith, Murdoch had serious doubts as to how diligent his mother had been in seeing to it he had been raised Catholic. ‘Is that right,’ he muttered. Not that he expected an answer to his question.
‘Yep,’ Johnny crowed; certain he had prevailed.
The tall Scot smoothed his jacket for a final time and strode to the threshold. ‘Tell you what, son,’ he intoned. ‘Since the Holy Father isn’t here, this father,’ he thumped his own chest with his thumb, ‘is going to give you that dispensation.’ He smiled, waving the younger man off. ‘You need to finish dressing, son,’ he said, giving a double, back-handed wave towards the hallway. ‘Proceed.’ When the youth didn’t move, he tried another tact. ‘It’s in The Book, you know. Proverbs. Sons, obey your earthly fathers…’
Dumbfounded and -- for once -- at a loss for words, Johnny Lancer backed up. Shoulders drooping in momentary defeat, he turned around and marched back to his room.
Murdoch felt a none-to-gentle thump against his knee that roused him from his musings. He turned and found himself eyeball to eyeball with his youngest. “What?” he whispered.
“Page 136,” Johnny hissed, shoving the open hymnal into his father’s hands. “‘Safely through Another Week’, verses 1 and 4.” Cocky, he grinned up at the older man. “Ya gotta pay attention, ya know,” he scolded.
Cheeks flushed, the tall rancher rose up from his seat; purposely ignoring the snickers from his younger son. It was, thank God, the closing hymn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Services over, Murdoch ushered his tribe through the doorway and out into the sunlight. Johnny had his Stetson in place before he even crossed the threshold. He bolted down the stairs only to be pulled up short by his father.
Murdoch used the heel of his boot to draw a shallow furrow into the dirt at the bottom of the steps, just to the right of the banister. “Right here,” he said softly. “I need to talk to Jess Simmons, and I want you to wait right here until I’m finished. No running off with the twins,” he ordered.
“Jeez, Murdoch,” Johnny groused, “been sittin’ still for damned more’n hour, ya know.” The complaint fell on deaf ears, and he watched as his father strode across the gravel pathway. Disgusted, he tugged on the storm strings on his hat; resisting the urge to chew on the carved bead that secured the thongs together.
“Hey, Johnny.” Ned Simmons had just sidled up beside his friend; his twin brother, Tim, following close behind. Apparently, Jess Simmons had not had the foresight to draw his own line in the dirt.
Johnny’s grin reached all the way up to his eyes, the sapphire orbs dancing. The smile disappeared when, over his friends’ shoulders, he saw Scott in an animated discussion with the twins’ elder brother, Reese. Scott had his arms out in front of him and was measuring with his hands, obviously in the process of telling yet another fish story. The fish were getting bigger as the tale progressed.
The brunet turned back to the twins, the smile reappearing as he leaned forward. “So,” he began, “whatta ya say we spend the afternoon fishin’?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was standing in the courtyard with the Simmons’ twins; their horses at rest behind them. All three youths were paying close attention to the Lancer patriarch, their heads moving side to side as they watched the man. Murdoch, his hands clenched behind his back, was pacing back and forth as he spoke. “And where do you intend to catch these fish?” he asked.
The young man knew better than to even suggest the Ribbon, which had been claimed as “our spot” by his father and brother. “Stock pond,” he answered. He was getting a crick in his neck tracking his father’s back and forth marching. Unconsciously, he reached up, rubbing at the sore spot.
“And you’ll be using what for tackle?” Murdoch prodded. “Bait?”
Johnny sighed. Christ. He hadn’t been asked this many questions the last time he’d hired out. “We’re gonna make toss lines, and we already found a bunch of grubs in the manure heap behind the barn.” He anticipated the next questions, rattling off the answers before they were asked. “We’ll do all the cleanin’ and guttin’, Maria said she’d cook up whatever we catch, and we’ll toss back anything smaller than this…” He measured what he knew was an acceptable length with both hands; laughing when Barranca pulled back on his lead to make the space between his fingers even wider.
Satisfied, the tall rancher finally nodded. “All right,” he said. “But I want you back here before the sun sets,” he admonished. He turned his attention to the twins. “I don’t want you boys riding back to your place in the dark.”
“They could spend the night,” Johnny ventured, nodding at his companions. “We could camp out…?”
Murdoch didn’t even attempt to stop the laughter. “I think not,” he declared. It was clear from his tone the matter was no longer open to discussion.
The tall Scot watched as his son and his companions mounted their horses and headed out. He knew without looking around that Scott had joined him.
“I heard you laughing, sir. Did Johnny say something you found particularly amusing?” Scott’s gaze followed his father’s. Johnny and the twins had begun a three-way race; Barranca well in the lead as they headed across the west pasture.
“He suggested the twins might spend the night,” Murdoch answered; “that they could camp out.”
It was Scott’s turn to laugh. The chances of that happening were, he knew, slim and none. “Remembering the last time?” he asked innocently.
Murdoch swung his head to stare at his elder son. “I’m remembering what Maria threatened to do to them when she found all of her freshly laundered aprons tied in the upper branches of that oak tree beside her garden,” he answered.
Scott’s smile widened. Johnny had made himself pretty scarce after the incident. “Well, he did say they considered using her petticoats,” he laughed.
“Then your brother would have been right up there hanging along with them,” Murdoch chuckled. He shaded his eyes, staring off into the horizon. Johnny and the twins were quite small now against a spring-blue sky; like toy soldiers laid out in the grass for play. “Well, at least we know where they are, and they won’t be getting in any trouble.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Barranca skidded to a stop; the animal’s haunches almost touching the earth when Johnny reined palomino in. The young man dropped to the ground with his usual grace; ground-hitching the horse as he headed for the large pond. Ned and Tim had also dismounted, and were tagging along behind their friend.
“So?” Ned asked; stooping to pick up a rock and flicking the shard into the water. The piece of quartz skipped three times before sinking; the ripples from the series of skips widening like fairy-rings before the water magically calmed.
Johnny had picked up his own selection of skipping stones. With the natural grace of a cat batting away a dead mouse, he released the first smooth pebble; watching as it skimmed the surface of the pond. “Five,” he grinned.
Tim had joined his friend and his brother. His first toss was a colossal failure: two miserable skips and a final plunk. He frowned. “So, we fishin’, or what?”
“Fishin’,” Johnny answered. “Get the bait.” He whistled, moving forward to meet Barranca as the horse ceased its grazing and obediently trotted across the meadow to greet his owner.
Ned cocked his head in his brother’s direction. “You heard the man,” he said. “Get the bait.” A half-day older than his sibling, he reveled in his role as the elder brother.
Tim’s expression was totally blank. “Why me?” he asked. “You’re the one that’s s’posed to be packin the grubs.”
There was a soft whump as Ned punched his brother’s shoulder. “I dug ‘em!” he argued. “You’re the one who was supposed to tote ‘em.” He was whispering now, not sure he wanted Johnny to hear what was going on.
Tim punched back; a bit harder. Enough that Ned actually took a couple of steps backwards. “I picked ‘em up and put ‘em in the can!”
Johnny was busy unpacking his gear from his saddlebags. He was softly whistling an out-of-tune version of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of a scuffle. He turned, his eyebrows rising as Ned landed a round-house punch to Tim’s nose; a sudden spurt of bright red blood misting against the cloudless blue sky. Johnny stood stock still for a time, debating on wading into the fight; and then changing his mind. Putting his fingers to his lips, he whistled.
The twins immediately turned to face the source of the ear-splitting noise. Sheepishly, they began brushing off their pants, their shirts; their gaze anywhere but on their friend.
“Bait?” Johnny asked, extending his hand.
Ned reached out a long arm, pointing at his sibling. Tim’s reaction was a perfect mirror of his brother’s. The brothers stood there, facing each other, pointing. And when they finally spoke the words came in unison. “He forgot to bring ‘em!”
Johnny threw up his hands is disbelief. “I can’t fuckin’ believe it!” he cursed. “How could you forget the fuckin’ grubs?”
The elder twin was thinking; hard. “I dug ‘em,” he said. He jerked his head in his brother’s direction. “He put ‘em in the can.” The young man was smiling now. “Seems only fair you should have been the one to bring ‘em.” It was skewed logic; but logic none-the-less.
Murdoch Lancer’s youngest boy was pissed. He stared hard at his two companions; pulling out the Madrid glare only to know the frustration of having it fail. The twins respected his Madrid persona but they were too damned hare-brained to be afraid. Besides, they actually liked him; Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer.
Tim crossed the few feet to where Johnny was standing and looped his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “We can go back and get ‘em,” he suggested. “It ain’t all that far.”
Johnny could only stare at his compadre. He started to say something only to be interrupted by Ned.
The elder twin stalked across the clearing. He took off his Stetson, using it as a club to swat at his brother’s head. “Right,” he fumed, delivering a half-dozen more smacks before putting his hat back on. “And the next thing we know, old Scott is askin’ us what the Hell are we doin’ comin’ back so soon and why don’t we got any fish…”
In his mind’s eye, Johnny could see it all. Scott laughin’ his ass off, the Old Man shakin’ his head; the pair of ‘em launching into one of those lectures about planning and being responsible. No way was that goin’ to happen; not in this lifetime. He reached out, grabbing both twins by the napes of their necks. “We’ll just find us some more grubs,” he breathed, dragging them up the earth-bermed bank towards the pond. “Right here.”
The plan was sound. Unfortunately, the grubs -- or anything else fitting as bait -- were totally unaware they were supposed to be cooperating.
Frustrated after a half-hour of fruitless searching among old and new cow patties, Johnny tossed his hat to the ground in disgust; sorely tempted to do a poor-man’s version of the Mexican Hat Dance. It didn’t help that -- just beyond him in the shallows -- a half dozen foot-long lake trout were skirmishing over their freshly laid eggs.
“Now what?” Ned asked. He kicked a large rock into the pond, scattering the fish.
“Maybe we could spear ‘em,” Tim proposed. “Like the Indians do.”
“And maybe we could just whistle for ‘em,” Johnny ground out, “get ‘em to come like a pack of dogs.”
Ned was shaking his head. “Or we could just quit and go home.”
Johnny resisted the urge to kick the shit out of his friend. “I ain’t goin’ home without any fish,” he declared. “Not after spendin’ the last week listenin’ to the Old Man and my brother braggin’ about what they caught and brung home for supper.” There had been a total of twenty-five keepers; each one with its own story about what a challenge it was to have landed them.
Tim was getting cranky. It wouldn’t be much longer before he started to whine about being hungry. “Well, then, Mr. Johnny Madrid, why don’t you just shoot ‘em?” He slapped his forehead with his open right hand. “Oh, yeah. Your Old Man took your pistol and locked it up.”
Fists clenched, his eyes mere slits, Johnny whirled around to face the younger twin. He was just about to take a swing when it hit him. Without a single word, he did an about face and headed to the place where Barranca was nibbling at a thick clump of peat enriched spring grass. He placed a soothing hand on the palomino’s neck and then moved on to his saddlebags. Digging into his stash, he withdrew an oil cloth wrapped parcel.
Ned and Tim shared a look, shrugged their shoulders, and joined their friend. Ned was the first to speak. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the packet.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He grinned across at his companions and began to uncover his treasure.
Tim’s eyes widened. “Holy shit!”
Ned was laughing. “Dynamite?” he asked.
“Yep!” Johnny answered.
Tim was already shaking his head. “Won’t work,” he said.
“Wanna bet?” Johnny crowed. He dropped the oil cloth and headed for the edge of the pond.
Instinctively, the Simmons’ twins headed for cover. They belly-flopped to the ground, behind a cluster of glacial worn boulders.
Johnny smoothed out the twelve inch lengths of fuse; his fingers caressing the thick cord as he twisted them together. The dynamite was left over from some blasting he and Scott had done in the south pasture; the blowing away of a tangle of roots: all that remained of a lightening downed cottonwood that was blocking a tributary of Cedar Creek.
Using his thumb nail, he scratched the top of a sulfur tipped wooden match, hesitating a bit before lighting the fuse. Then, cocking his arm back, he made the toss. The sticks of TNT arced high into the sky before plummeting earthward. Johnny watched the trail of pale smoke and shower of sparks as the explosives descended; realizing too late that he had over calculated the throw. The dynamite didn’t drop directly into the water as he had planned. Instead, the compact red sticks bounced against an outcropping of timber shoring at the edge of the man-made pond; rising into the air again to disappear beneath the overhang right beneath the younger man’s feet.
Johnny felt himself being lifted off his feet; the sensation that he was actually flying filling him with a strange euphoria. Arms akimbo, he hung suspended upside down in the air for a heartbeat. And then he hit the muddy ground. He lay, flat on his back, watching in amazement as it began to rain fish, frogs and fresh water clams.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was aware of a sudden, loud whoomph, his head coming up just in time to see the French doors heave inwards, the glass panes becoming convex before returning to their original shape. Jumping to his feet, he swung open the twin doors nearest his desk, staring off into the horizon as he attempted to determine the source of the sound.
What he saw truly astounded him. A waterfall had mysteriously appeared in the high pasture at the base of the pond, and above the sudden torrent of water that was gushing forth; a myriad of gold and silver slivers of light filled the blue sky. Before the big man could step through the doorway for a better look, Scott came up to stand at his right shoulder.
“What the Hell…?” The blond rarely cursed. “Sir?”
Murdoch was shaking his head. Adding to the pandemonium he was witnessing was the sight of Barranca and two other horses coming towards the house at a full run, and in their wake, a dozen of Lancer’s prized Guernsey milch cows and their spring calves.
“Johnny,” the two men said in one voice. Together, they charged through the door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He came awake slowly, sure only of one thing: every inch of his body from the tip of his toes to the top of his head hurt; really hurt. Without opening his eyes, he slowly pulled in a deep breath, only to realize that simple task hurt as well. Knowing it would also hurt to exhale, he held his breath. Not a good idea. Giving up, he let nature take its course, exhaling slowly: a series of small puffs.
“Finally,” the voice said.
Johnny risked opening his right eye. Even that hurt. He concentrated on focusing, finally making out the face of his older brother. “Scott,” he breathed. “What the hell happened?” There seemed to be an echo in the room; at least that’s how it sounded inside his head. His own voice seemed far away, whisper soft. He turned up the volume. “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?” Oh shit, that really smarts!
Scott closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. “Just how much do you remember?” he asked.
“WHAT?” Johnny tried to shift on the bed and found himself wondering when Maria had replaced his soft mattress with a butt-breaking board.
“Sam said this would probably happen,” Scott muttered. When he saw the look of confusion on his brother’s face, he tried again; a slightly abbreviated version. “SAM SAID THIS WOULD HAPPEN.”
Johnny’s expression was befuddled to say the least. He was in no mood for bible lessons. “SAMSON’S IN HEAVEN?” he shouted. His cheeks colored. “YOU THINK I GIVE A FUCK, BROTHER? I’M GOIN’ DEAF HERE!!”
“WELL, I’M NOT!” A familiar voice roared.
The brothers turned to face the now open bedroom door where Murdoch was standing, hands clenched against his hips. Sam Jenkins was standing just behind him. In spite of the pain, Johnny scrunched his heels to pull himself even farther down on the bed, pulling the blankets up around his ears; but not before mouthing a string of profanities.
Scott had become quite adept at reading his younger brother’s lips. Holy fuckin’ shit. Wisely -- although he didn’t understand why he was doing it -- he shifted on the bed until his body was shielding his sibling. “Sir,” he greeted. “Sam…”
Doc Jenkins shook his head and shouldered his way past the tall Scot. He was muttering under his breath. In the few months since Johnny had returned home, the boy had managed to heap calamity upon calamity; drawing trouble as efficiently as a lightening rod, but with more regularity. “Time to check those ears,” he barked.
Johnny knew better than to mess with the doctor. Without any urging, he pulled the blankets away from his face. “YOU CAN FIX ‘EM, RIGHT?”
Sam was taking a variety of supplies out of his medical bag. Wearily, he pulled out a small burner, a two-tiered device consisting of a tripod base with a thick candle, and a metal, saucer shaped pan. Lighting the candle, the physician poured a measure of medicinal oil into the little container; stirring the liquid with his finger until he was satisfied with the temperature. He snuffed out the small candle and then set about filling a glass ear dropper. Tapping the glass to remove the air bubbles, he leaned over the bed. “TURN YOUR HEAD,” he instructed.
The brunet’s brow furrowed. At least the old man hadn’t asked him to turn over on to his side. He did as he was told, wincing a bit as the warm oil entered his ear canal; a bitter taste assaulting the back of his throat. The next thing he knew, Sam was digging in his ear with something that felt the size of an elbow. He felt the doctor reposition his head to repeat the procedure in his opposite ear. Then Sam cupped both of his hands; one on either side of his head, pushing his palms in and just as quickly flexing them away.
Johnny felt a small pop; first in his right ear, and then in his left. Gradually, he became aware of sound; muffled at first, and then clearer. He swallowed, and his ears popped again. This time it hurt. But at least he could hear.
The younger man cringed. “Jesus, Sam! Don’t shout. I got me one hell of a headache!”
“You’re lucky that’s all you’ve got,” the physician snorted. Without any warning, the doctor pulled back the covers. He began the usual poking and prodding. “Nothing broken,” he said as he worked his way down the young man’s body.
Johnny hissed as Sam continued his explorations. “Just ‘cause nothin’s broke, don’t mean it ain’t hurtin’,” he complained.
Sam straightened; stretching a bit before addressing the Lancer patriarch. “If he were a cat,” he grumbled, pointing to the bed, “I’d be willing to wager that he’s just used up life number eight.”
Murdoch was not amused. “What now?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“A hot bath,” Sam answered. “And then for good measure, a rub down with some horse liniment and perhaps a dose of castor oil.”
Johnny shot a dark look at the doctor. “Real funny, doc,” he snarled. He’d learned all he wanted to know about castor oil when he’d gotten bound up eating some fancy cheese dish Teresa had cooked up from one of those recipes she was always getting from Widow Hargis.
Murdoch ignored his son’s outburst. “How long?”
It was, Johnny knew, not a good thing when his father was being frugal with his words. He searched out Sam’s face, hoping for some form of reprieve. Anything to get him away from the house. Soon.
“Until what?” Sam shot back.
Until I can take him out to the woodshed and reacquaint him with my belt, the older man thought. Aloud, he said, “Until he’s able to be up and about taking care of the mess he’s managed to make.”
“A hot bath first,” Sam said. “And then we’ll see.” The physician swung his eyes to Scott, smiling a bit as he saw the look in the younger man’s eyes. “You will help him with his bath?” he asked.
Scott nodded. There was nothing he wanted more than a chance to be alone with his little brother.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Steam filled the bathroom; droplets of moisture clinging to the walls and the single, stained glass window above the privy. The aroma of bath salts mingled with the pungent scent of bourbon. Scott had brought a fresh bottle with him. He had broken the seal and poured a tumbler of the amber liquor into Johnny’s bath water; leaving the remainder of in the bottle, which he had handed to his sibling with an order to drink up! It was, he claimed, an old cavalryman’s cure for the aches and pains that came with being unexpectedly dumped onto the ground.
The blond was sitting on a stool beside the bath tub, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees; the near empty bottle of bourbon between his feet. His face registered something more than confusion. It was clear from his expression he was perturbed and rapidly losing patience. Johnny was taking forever to tell his story. “Two…what?” he demanded.
Johnny had sunk down even further in the tub, his lips barely visible. When he answered his brother’s question, the words bubbled across the surface of the water. “Sticks of dynamite,” he murmured.
Scott almost fell off the stool. “You went fishing with two,” he held up the appropriate number of digits, repeating the word, “two sticks of dynamite?” He fought the urge to strangle his brother. “I thought you had grub worms for bait,” he ground out.
“Twins forgot to bring ‘em,” Johnny said, as if that explained everything. “They all right?” he asked quietly. It was the first time he had had the opportunity to ask the question. “Ned and Tim?”
“Murdoch sent them home. They’re fine,” Scott answered. “Unlike you, they had the good sense to find some cover before you attempted to blow yourself to kingdom come. What the Hell were you thinking, little brother?”
Johnny was moving his legs back in forth in the long tub. He really didn’t have an answer for that particular question; not one his brother would like. He knew he needed to change the subject. “I can’t feel my cajones!” he announced, his right hand disappearing between his legs.
“My balls,” Johnny translated, as if his brother were a complete idiot. “It’s like they’re…asleep.”
Scott raked his fingers across his face, pausing long enough to use two fingers to rub at the spot between his eyes where the headache was beginning. A wicked gleam began to fire the pale orbs. “I seem to remember once, during the War…”
Johnny sunk down even deeper in the tub. He was seriously considering drowning himself. Great. Another fuckin’ war story. “Yeah?” he drawled.
The blond was shaking his head, as if he had changed his mind. “No. You wouldn’t want to hear this one.”
That was enough to make Johnny curious. “Why not?” he pressed.
Scott pretended to think about it. “Well, it is rather tragic.” He sighed.
“Jesus Christ, Scott. Just spit it out!!” Johnny was really agitated now.
“No,” Scott breathed. “The last thing you need to hear right now is about a man in a similar situation who lost his ability to…” He shrugged. Picking up the towel from the floor, he shook it out and held it up.
“Ability to what!?” Johnny shouted, grabbing the toweling. He started to stand up, only to slip on a piece of soap that was stuck to the bottom of the tub. He landed flat on his butt; another jolt to the family jewels.
Scott was disappearing across the threshold, discretely shutting the door behind him as he made his exit. “His ability to…” The rest of the words faded into nothingness as the door snapped shut.
Gingerly, Johnny stepped out of the tub; furiously rubbing himself with the flannel cloth before folding it once and securing it around his waist with a single, haphazard knot. He charged through the door into the hallway, intent on finding his brother. “His ability to WHAT?” he yelled.
Frowning, Murdoch stepped into the hallway and latched on to his younger son. “Stop yelling,” he ordered.
Johnny was on his tiptoes, looking over his father’s shoulder. Scott was nowhere to be seen. Giving up, he stared up at his Old Man. “Kinda sore here,” he griped.
“I’ll have Maria fetch the liniment,” Murdoch said, tugging at his son’s arm as he led him towards his bedroom. “I’m sure she can put you back in order.”
Johnny felt his nether regions wither even more. “Uh-uh,” the younger man protested, digging in with his heels. It was a useless attempt; his feet were still wet. “No way.”
Murdoch simply pulled his son along, reaching out to open the bedroom door. He shoved his son inside.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He was laying on his bed, flat on his belly; the only dignity that remained, the towel that was draped around his rear. Maria was applying copious amounts of a sharp smelling lotion; her agile fingers massaging his shoulders and upper arms as if she were kneading a huge ball of dough. Johnny was beginning to feel sorry for bread.
And the entire time, the woman was scolding him. Every so often, she would punctuate a word or a thought with a series of rabbit punch blows to his still tender muscles.
Finally, she let up. Just long enough to pour another dose of liniment on the back of his legs. The pounding started again.
“¡Madre de Cristos!” he swore.
Maria immediately straightened. With a single grab, she plucked the towel from the younger man’s posterior; smacking him soundly on his bare behind. “¡Bastante!" (Enough!) Without another word, and still carrying the young man’s towel, she exited the room.
Johnny let out a single breath, his right hand going to his left buttock. He could feel the ridges of the woman’s fingers; hot to the touch. Bad enough when she uses that damned spoon, he thought ruefully. Then, realizing what had just happened, and the fact he was naked as a jaybird, he began to blush.
“Well, that’s…interesting.” Scott was standing at the threshold, grinning down at his younger brother. A perfect hand print was emblazoned across the youth’s bare posterior. “Maria?” he asked, biting back the smile. “Certainly not our little sister…”
The brunet lifted himself up slightly without turning over, just long enough to glare over his shoulder at his elder brother. “Shut the door,” he snarled, “and lock it!” The way his luck had been going, Teresa would -- sure enough -- come barging in. He began grabbing for his blankets; cursing as he came to terms with the fact Maria had draped his covers across the foot of the bed.
“Murdoch wants to see you downstairs in the Great Room,” Scott said.
“Fuck Murdoch,” the younger man groused.
Scott had crossed the room. He grabbed the blankets from the foot of the bed and pulled them up over his brother’s bare behind. “One hundred five,” he said cryptically, easing himself into the bedside chair.
Johnny was sitting up; the covers bunched around his waist. “Huh?”
“One hundred five keepers,” Scott answered. He sensed that he needed to clarify. “That’s the number of fish Cipriano and the others scooped up at the pond.” What left of the pond, he mused.
“No shit!” Johnny grinned. He stared across at his brother, the blue eyes dancing. “I win,” he said, gloating.
“The fishing contest,” Johnny answered. He was feeling cocky now. “That’s eighty more fish than you and the Old Man brought home,” he crowed.
Scott leaned back in the chair. “That’s what this was all about?” he asked, his tone changing. “The fact Murdoch and I had some measure of success when we were fly fishing?”
Johnny was picking at the threads on the corner of his quilt. He shrugged. “I don’t like losin’, Scott. It’s part of the trade.”
The blond was chewing on his lower lip. “We were fishing, Johnny,” he said. “Not facing Johnny Madrid in the middle of some street in the middle of nowhere.”
“You roped and hogtied me when I was tryin’ to fish,” the younger man pouted. “How fair was that?”
Scott unlevered himself from the chair and stood up, his back ramrod straight. Johnny had been a real pain in the ass when they were up on the Ribbon. As for the roping and the hogtieing incident: he’d left his brother trussed up for less than five minutes and then only to make a point.
Doing an abrupt about face, Scott went to his brother’s dresser and began pulling out an assortment of clothes, purposely choosing items he knew Johnny didn’t like. “I would suggest,” he said, turning around and moving back to the bed, “you don’t try that particular argument with our father.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk, his long fingers drumming against the polished finish; a brand new ledger sitting in front of him. He couldn’t believe it. He’d intended this ledger to be used to record next year’s installment of Lancer’s financial records -- he bought the books by the dozen at a substantial savings -- and here he was recording a list of his youngest son’s recent misadventures. He sighed. And he had actually laughed at Sam when the physician told him he was starting a separate record for Johnny’s medical mishaps.
Impatiently, the big Scot shoved back his chair. He took a quick look at the Grandfather clock, watching as the big hand jumped to the five. It had been twenty minutes since he had sent Scott up to fetch his brother. Enough is enough, he thought. Just as he started to stand up, he heard the familiar soft thump of booted feet in the upper hallway, heading for the stairway. Scott, he mused. Johnny, he knew, was in all likelihood going to attempt -- again -- sliding down the banister. Not this time, he thought. There had been more than enough foolishness for one day.
He strode across the room, heading for the arched doorway. He arrived at the foot of the stairs just as his younger son mounted the balustrade. “John!”
Johnny visibly winced. He dropped down from the railing, using his right hand to flick away a non-existent mote of dust. “Just checkin’ to make sure T’resa’s keepin’ up with her dustin’,” he muttered.
Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched. He said nothing; choosing instead to point a long finger in the direction of the Great Room.
Johnny was smart enough to keep his brother between himself and his father. He led the way into the inner sanctum, instinctively raising his hand to brush away a sensation of heat at the back of his neck; knowing full well his Old Man was giving him the look.
Murdoch shouldered his way past his sons. He took his usual place behind the desk, watching as Scott headed for the drink table. When his elder son lifted the bottle of Taliskers, he nodded his head. It had been a long day. Turning his gaze to his younger son, he pointed to the chair on his left. “Sit,” he ordered.
Johnny was standing behind the chair he usually occupied when the Old Man was in an ass-chewing mood. The fingers of his left hand were skimming across the top of the stiff leather cross piece. “I prefer to stand,” he muttered. It was Scott’s line, but hell, it always seemed to work on those occasions when his elder brother chose to use it.
“And I prefer that you sit,” Murdoch countered sharply.
Shit! He turned to look at his brother. “I could use some tequila,” he announced.
“You will not be having a drink,” Murdoch declared, his tone severe. “Now, sit!”
Scott approached his father’s desk, drink in hand. He placed the tumbler of Scotch close to the older man’s right hand, and then took his place next to his brother.
Once again, Murdoch’s fingers began to tap one-two-three-four against the dark oak. With his left hand, he shoved the open ledger across the flat surface, deftly spinning it around in front of his youngest. “This,” he began, thumping the page with a single, rigid forefinger and struggling to keep his tone neutral, “is a list of what transpired today after that little fiasco up at the pond.” His finger moved to a second column. “And this is what it is going to cost -- in labor and materials -- to put things right.” His frown deepened. “And that figure does not include what it’s going to cost to supply this ranch with milk until the cows are able to produce again.” It had taken the hands most of the afternoon to find the Guernsey’s. The explosion had frightened the cows so badly, herd instinct was forgotten, and the beasts had scattered to the winds.
Johnny leaned forward in his chair, his eyes scanning the page. His lips pursed as an involuntary whistle escaped his lips when he saw the total. Reaching out, he shoved the book back across the desk, fanning his fingers as he spun the ledger precisely ninety degrees. “So I guess you’ll be wantin’ that listenin’ money back,” he drawled.
“What I want, young man,” Murdoch leaned forward, his expression intense, “is an explanation of what you were doing when you attempted to go fishing!”
Scott shot a severe look at his younger brother, mouthing a quiet ‘don’t do it’.
Johnny turned to grin at his sibling. When he turned away, it was to stare hard at the floor for a long moment before slouching back in the chair; his right leg lifting as he rested his ankle on his trim left thigh. He began digging at the dry mud between the boot’s vamp and worn sole; working the dirt from between the creases. “I was attemptin’ to beat you,” he stopped plucking at the dirt, “and him,” he finished, nodding at Scott. He knew from the look on his father’s face he needed to explain. “At fishin’.” He was smirking now. “And I did.” The smile grew. “A hundred and five!!” When he saw his father didn’t comprehend, he continued. “Fish!”
Scott finished the rest of his drink in one swallow and immediately rose up out of his chair in search of a refill. He came back to the desk with the nearly full decanter, refilling his father’s glass before attending to his own. This time he didn’t sit down; choosing instead to pace.
Murdoch’s face was buried in his hands and he was shaking his head. Not for the first time, he seriously wondered if his youngest child was intentionally trying to drive him insane. He shook the thought away. “I didn’t realize we were engaged in a fishing contest,” he breathed. His hands dropped to his lap and he locked them together in a conscious effort not to reach out and box his son’s ears.
“Sure we were,” Johnny piped up. There were times when his Old Man was just as ignorant as his brother. “Hell, you and Scott even bet over who’d catch the first fish!” He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing in accusation. “Only you and him,” he gestured vaguely towards his brother, who was marching up and down behind the couch, “stacked the odds against me; right from the beginnin’.”
Scott paused in his pacing just long enough to smack the back of his brother’s head. Johnny Madrid Lancer, he fumed, master of diversion. He had no doubt that before this was all over, the boy would have their father convinced everything that had happened was their fault and he was completely innocent.
“Excuse me?” Murdoch asked, the words deceptively soft.
Johnny was on a roll. “Yep!” He began ticking his complaints off, one by one. “First there was Scott, gettin’ Ole Harlan to ship him that fly fishin’ sh… stuff. Two rods,” he snorted, indignant. “Two pair of them waders, two…” he turned slightly in his chair, “what did you call them little basket things?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “And when I finally rig me up a pole of my own so I can fish, he…” another jab of his finger in Scott’s general direction, “ropes and hogties me…”
There was a harsh squeal as Murdoch shoved his chair back and abruptly stood up. Before Johnny knew what was happening, his father was looming over him, one hand on each arm of the chair. “That, my son,” the older man began, “is the biggest load of bullshit you have ever attempted to shovel in my direction, and I am not buying one mote!” He leaned in closer. “Now, exactly what happened up at the pond?”
Johnny was pressed as far back in the chair as he could go. The brunet didn’t know what impressed him most: the speed and agility the Old Man had displayed getting up from his chair and moving around the desk, or his father’s use of the word ‘bullshit’. He contemplated trying to slide down and make his escape by slipping between his father’s legs. Giving up, he surrendered to the inevitable: telling the truth. “Dynamite,” he whispered. “I tossed some dynamite into the pond to snag some fish.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed briefly. “And it didn’t occur to you what might happen when you ‘tossed some dynamite’ into the pond?” he grated.
Johnny shrugged. He could feel the heat of his father’s breath against his face. “I wasn’t thinkin’…”
The tall Scot raised his right hand, effectively cutting of his son’s words. “You can stop right there,” he said. “It’s quite obvious you weren’t thinking!” He pulled himself erect. “If I recall things correctly, you’re exact words this afternoon when you told me you were going fishing was that you would take care of all the ‘guttin’ and cleanin’’ of the fish you caught.
“That’s exactly what you are going to do, young man. Beginning right now.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “It’s gettin’ dark out there!” he complained, nodding to the window behind his father’s desk. Shit! It hit him then; just how much time must have passed since he and the twins had gone up to the pond to fish. Hell, that had been right after lunch. He turned slightly to take a look at the Grandfather clock, which had just pinged the quarter hour. It was 7:45. He’d fuckin’ been out cold while everyone else was probably eatin’ dinner! As if to affirm the realization, his stomach growled. “I ain’t had supper, either!”
Murdoch ignored the comment about missing supper. “There are plenty of lanterns in the ice house,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll have more than sufficient lighting for the task.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott deftly slit open the belly of a foot long trout, using two fingers to scrape out the fish’s entrails. He dipped the fish into a bucket of water; swishing it around and then laying the creature aside. Approaching the task with his usual logic, the blond had set up an assembly line of sorts; and between he and his younger brother -- in the past two and a half hours -- had scaled, gutted and cleaned the majority of the fish. “So how many of these do you think we should filet?” he asked.
“Maria said all of ‘em,” the younger man answered glumly. He sneezed; using the back of his hand to swipe away a cluster of scales that had settled on his upper lip. The damned things were everywhere; on his clothing, in his hair; occasionally up his nose. “She said she’s gonna pickle some of ‘em,” he made a face at the thought, “and that she was gonna fry up the rest and make me eat all of ‘em. Breakfast, lunch, supper.”
The blond laughed. “That what you get for complaining all the time about beef,” he teased. He had stopped gutting, and was now sharpening his knife. “I wrote to Grandfather while you were,” he hesitated, “napping.” Reaching out, he laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to exclude you from what Murdoch and I were doing up on the Ribbon, Johnny,” he said softly; aware that many of the stunts his younger brother pulled were, more often than not, bids for their father’s attention. “I’ve asked Grandfather to send another fly rod and some additional tackle.”
Johnny snorted, but there was a smile playing on his lips. “I ain’t never gonna fish again,” he muttered. “You and Murdoch can take all that fly fishin’ shit and shove it up…” He stopped midsentence when he heard the ice house door opening.
Murdoch stepped over the threshold, his boots whispering across the straw covered floor. “Impressive,” he said, moving into the circle of light to survey the line of neatly displayed fish.
Johnny was sucking his thumb; attempting to stem the flow of blood from yet another nick in the already sore digit. He gave up, wiping the blood off on his britches. “Checkin’ up on us, or are you gonna give us a hand?” he snapped.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed at the insolence in his son’s tone. “The only hand you’ll be getting from me, young man -- if you don’t learn to control that mouth -- will be the one I apply to your backside.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve spoken to Maria. She feels it would be a good idea if, tomorrow, you and your brother pack these fish in ice,” he nodded to the rows of cleaned trout, “and take them to the mission in Morro Coyo.”
Johnny’s face flamed a bright red. “Wait a minute!” he protested. He didn’t give a damned about the fish; about eating them, anyway. It was just… Hell, it didn’t matter how he’d managed to catch ‘em; they were his, and he didn’t much like the idea of givin’ ‘em up, not after all the work of scalin’ and guttin’ he’d just done! “You mean we’re doin’ all this work and we’re gonna give the fish away?”
The tall Scot nodded his head. “Yes,” he answered. Reaching into his front pants pocket, he pulled out his pocket watch, flipping it open. “It’s ten fifteen,” he muttered. “You can finish this up in the morning.”
There was a sound as Johnny flipped the knife he had been using, hard; the point digging deep into the thick plank he had been using to secure the fish he was scaling. “Fine by me,” he groused. “Getting’ hungry, anyway; what with missin’ supper and all.”
Murdoch didn’t miss the accusation in his younger son’s voice. “This is how it’s going to be, son,” he began. “You are going into the house, you are going straight up to the bathroom to clean up, and then you are going straight to bed. No detours to the kitchen, no little side trips to the pantry.”
Johnny’s lips pursed, a major sulk coming. “You’re sendin’ me to bed without supper!?” he asked incredulously. One thing about coming home, back to Lancer, the meals had been pretty damned regular.
Scott was watching the play between his father and his kid brother. His chin was trembling as he fought the urge to laugh. Instead, he continued to gut fish, humming softly as he waited for his father’s response. It wasn’t long in coming.
“We eat at six,” Murdoch intoned.
The brunet did a double take. “Jesus Christ, Old Man! I was layin’ up in my bed passed out cold…”
“And whose fault was that?” Murdoch asked. “You know the rules, John. We eat dinner at six sharp.” He shrugged. It was clear he was enjoying himself. “If you chose to be occupied elsewhere…”
“‘Occupied elsewhere,’” the younger man sputtered. “I sure in hell didn’t choose to be flat on my back…!”
Murdoch nailed his younger son a harsh glare. “Did you choose to throw the dynamite?” he asked, the words coming softly.
Johnny’s mouth opened, no sound coming out. He stood for a long time, his mind racing as he searched for a smart-assed answer, none coming. Giving up, he spun on his heel and headed for the house.
“Scott?” Murdoch turned to face his elder son, admiring the grace in the younger man’s fingers as the blond added another cleaned fish to the other carcasses laying in a neat row atop the blocks of ice. “You didn’t have to help him, you know.”
Scott was cleaning off his hands in the bucket of water at his knee. “No, sir, I didn’t.” He nodded at the line of gutted trout. “I just assumed you would like to have them cleaned sometime in this century,” he teased, “without all the argument and usual stalling tactics.”
Murdoch laughed. He headed toward the door, knowing his son was behind him. “That tune you were humming when Johnny and I were talking…” his brow furrowed as he tried to place the melody.
The blond had caught up with his father and they were now walking side by side. “It was the closing hymn at church this morning.” It all seemed so long ago now. “‘Safely through Another Week.’” He laughed. “With everything that happened today, it seemed appropriate.” He risked a look at his sire. “He is still alive and relatively unscathed.”
Murdoch’s gaze was fastened on the ground. Flecks of iridescent silver glimmered beneath the light of the full moon; like small bits of mother-of-pearl forming a path to the front door of the house. Fish scales, he realized; left in Johnny’s wake. He sighed. The boy drew dirt just like he attracted trouble. “It’s not midnight yet, Scott,” he observed drolly. “The week’s not over until it’s midnight.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
There was no way in hell he was going to bed hungry, no matter what the Old Man said. Johnny carefully peered around the doorway to the kitchen. It took a little time for his eyes to adjust to the dim light; the only source of illumination a shaded kerosene lantern that hung suspended over the dry sink. Stealthily -- back hugging the wall -- he eased himself around the door frame. Man, it smells good in here, he thought. His nose was actually twitching.
So far, he had discerned three distinct aromas: sage dressing (could roast chicken be far behind?), something T’resa called seasoned green beans (scratch those) and chocolate (the main course!). Johnny smiled. There were some advantages to livin’ the good life besides indoor plumbing, he mused. The kitchen had a fairly decent sized ice box in the dark pantry: big enough to store left-over’s along with eggs and butter; although it didn’t keep milk as cold as he liked. But tonight he’d settle.
Booted feet whispering across the tiled floor, Johnny moved to the shelves above the sink. He reached up; grimacing as he carefully pulled a plate from the top of the stack. Damn! The dry scrape of china against china seemed to fill the room. Holding his breath, the youth lifted the plate away from the others. Not want to risk more noise, he grabbed a towel from the hook; doing a quick one-handed fold to form a pad before setting the dish down. He decided to forego a glass; deciding he would just drink his milk from the pitcher. Hell, it’s not like he hadn’t done the same a hundred times in the past when Maria or the rest of the family wasn’t around. Especially T’resa. The girl almost had a cow the first time she had caught him.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch pointed to the scattering of fish scales as he and Scott approached the front portico. The fragile, shell shaped particles were even more obvious right at the threshold; iridescent beneath the light of the hang-down lanterns. He reached out, tapping Scott’s arm. “He wiped the toes of his boots on the back of his pant legs,” he grinned.
“Ah, yes,” Scott agreed, extending his right hand to open the front door, “my ever fastidious baby brother,” he murmured. The trail of fish scales continued into the tiled hallway. Scott stopped dead in his tracks. “He didn’t go up stairs.”
There was a grinding sound as Murdoch clenched his teeth. “The kitchen,” he said, nodding at the floor. “After I specifically forbid him to go anywhere but the bathroom and to bed!”
Scott beckoned for his father to follow him. He was whispering as well as tip-toeing. “Here’s what I propose, sir,” he murmured. “I’ll catch him; you beat him.” He was only partly joking.
“Don’t tempt me,” Murdoch growled.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was fumbling inside the zinc-lined ice box, cursing the lack of light. He’d managed to locate, by feel, the pitcher of milk, which he had placed atop the box; but the left-over chicken was another matter. Finally, his hand closed around the carcass. Plump little bugger, he thought. He withdrew his hand, licking off the stuffing that was stuck to his fingers. Then, grabbing the chicken, he plunked in onto his plate; careful to leave room for the chocolate cake.
Only it wasn’t chocolate cake. He knew it for certain, when, by feel, he discovered the source of the chocolate smell was a bowl of pudding. Oh well, chocolate is chocolate.
The plate was getting pretty full, what with half a chicken, stuffing and a good-sized bowl of pudding. The chicken and the stuffing he considered finger food, but the pudding was another problem. Too thick to drink, but too soft to pick up with his fingers. Shit. Now I need a spoon!
Full plate in one hand and pitcher of milk in the other, Johnny backed out of the pantry. He hesitated, kicking the door of the ice-box closed; unsteady on his feet as he used his left toe to secure the latch.
Murdoch and Scott entered the kitchen just as Maria came up behind Johnny. They watched in amazement as the former pistolero, threw up his now empty hands. “¡Jesús, Jose y Maria!" he shouted, grabbing at the door frame to steady himself.
Scott watched as the dead chicken -- well, half a dead chicken -- flew upwards towards the ceiling, gobs of stuffing dropping like shell-less eggs to plop against the floor. The pitcher of milk had dropped like an anchor, shattering against the clay tiles. And the bowl of pudding…
The bowl of pudding was doing a series of rapid turns mid-air, centrifugal force keeping the contents inside until, finally, the pint sized container landed upside down; right on top of Maria’s head.
The silence that had descended on the room was total. Everyone was holding their breath. And then, realizing he was probably about to die, Johnny took off, heading for the back door. Scott was hot on his heels as the room exploded into mad activity.
Maria’s first instinct was to find a spoon; the largest one in her collection. She began swinging. Scott had just grabbed a hold of his younger brother, coming up from behind and wrapping his long arms around his sibling’s upper body. He immediately let go as Maria’s first blow landed solidly across his buttocks. “Maria!!” Letting go of his brother, he spun around; both hands coming up to ward off the woman’s attack.
Johnny, who was no fool, didn’t even stop to laugh. He rounded the end of the table -- the place where his father usually sat at breakfast -- and sprinted towards the door.
For a big man with a bullet fragment still remaining in one hip, Murdoch Lancer could move really fast when he had cause. Stepping around the opposite side of the table, he reached out a long right arm and grabbed a handful of long, dark curls. With his left, he wrapped his fingers around the younger man’s belt and hauled him up short.
Johnny was clawing at his father’s right wrist. Shit! Shit fuck!! Aloud he said, “Dammit, Old Man! That smarts!!”
Murdoch’s response was markedly restrained. “Not as much as it’s going to,” he breathed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The Grandfather clock in the Great Room chimed the hour; twelve strikes to mark the day’s end. Murdoch saluted his elder son with his glass. “Now the week is over,” he said, a slight smile coming.
Scott laughed at the reference to their earlier conversation regarding the closing hymn at Sunday’s morning service. “Safely through Another Week,” he said, his tone almost prayerful. He took a long drink of his Scotch. “I thought for certain Maria was going to kill him before he finished cleaning up the pudding.”
Murdoch laughed, softly. “And how is your backside, son?”
The tall blond had to think about that one for awhile. Gingerly, he fingered the still tender flesh. He had to admit the housekeeper packed quite a wallop; enough that he wasn’t going to risk her wrath anytime soon. “We should have set her on Pardee,” he joshed.
“Or sent her fishing with your brother,” Murdoch sighed. He put his glass down. “Well, no point in putting this off any longer.”
Scott visibly winced. Johnny had been escorted to his room immediately after he had finished cleaning the kitchen; without the usual lecture. Murdoch had been too angry to speak to his son at that particular moment, but he had made it very clear there was going to be a discussion before the matter was completely resolved and the appropriate punishment dispensed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch paused outside of his younger son’s bedroom door, a smile coming as he heard the scuffling of feet and the subtle noise of blankets hurriedly being put in place. He knocked one time, not waiting for an answer; and proceeded to open the door. Johnny was sprawled out on his bed, flat on his belly, his face turned towards the window; his left leg dangling over the edge of the mattress, as if he was poised for flight.
The older man crossed the room, his stride determined; boot heels thunking solidly against the hard wood floor. Reaching out, he lifted the glass globe from the bedside lantern; the smell of sulfur filling the air as he struck a match and adjusted the wick. He replaced the globe. “Johnny,” he called.
Shaking his head, the big man reached out; using the back of his hand to smack the youth’s rear end. He sighed. As usual, his youngest boy was completely naked beneath the covers. “Sit up,” he ordered. “I know you’re not asleep, son.”
Johnny sighed. When he’d first come home -- after he had recovered from the back wound -- he had been a master at fooling everyone into thinking he was sound asleep, when, in fact, he was simply avoiding them. The trick didn’t work anymore; at least not with the Old Man or Scott. Gathering his blankets around his middle, he turned over; but not before his father smacked his rear a second time. “Kinda hurts back there, ya know.”
Murdoch was standing above his son, a night shirt dangling from his fingers. “Your brother is of the opinion we should have recruited Maria to fight Pardee,” he chuckled.
It was Johnny’s turn to laugh. “Yeah. She’d’a taught old Day a thing or two,” he drawled. He frowned when he saw the night shirt his father was holding. How the Hell does the Old Man find them things? he pondered.
“You need to find a better hiding place, son,” Murdoch said. He smiled at the look on his son’s face. “You sleep with the window open, John. It’s not spring yet, and the nights are still cold. You need to wear this so you don’t take a chill.”
Reluctantly, Johnny took the flannel night shirt. “So how long you gonna keep me on a short leash this time?” he asked. His head disappeared briefly; a soft curse coming as his arms became tangled in the soft fabric. Christ, he hated these damned things.
“That’s going to depend on you, my son,” Murdoch answered. He pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. “But I would suggest that you don’t make any plans involving you or the twins for the foreseeable future.”
Johnny’s head came up. “That don’t exactly sound like a suggestion to me, Murdoch,” he muttered. “Sounds more like an order.”
The big Scot’s jaws tensed. “All right, then, John. It’s an order.” He let the words sink in. “When I sent the twins home, I had Cipriano accompany them. I didn’t want Jess to think that the boys had gotten into trouble; that they were responsible for what happened up at the pond.” News travelled fast in the valley; too damned fast on occasion. “I don’t think Jess is going to be very inclined towards allowing those boys to spend much time over here; not after today.”
The brunet’s mouth turned down in a petulant frown. “I’m the one that had the dynamite,” he murmured.
“That’s the point, Johnny.” Murdoch raised his hand as the younger man started to speak. “The problem, however, is that when the three of you get together, things tend to happen. I’m going to speak to Jess myself, but as far as I’m concerned, you and the twins need some time apart to reflect on your behavior.”
Johnny was picking at the buttons on the night shirt. “Meanin’ what?” he asked.
“Meaning you are going to be far too busy making repairs up at the pond to even think about the twins. We also have two milk cows that are, since the explosion, refusing to nurse their calves. This means they are going to have to be bottle fed until the problem is resolved; and that, my boy, is going to be your job.” He began ticking things off with his right fore finger, thumping it against his thigh. “So the list of your additional chores is this: delivering the fish to the mission, picking up supplies we’ll be needing for repairs at the pond, working on the pond, seeing to it the calves are fed…”
Johnny’s head was spinning. He wasn’t, however, about to let his father have the last word. “Still caught more fish than you ‘n’ Scott,” he grumbled.
Murdoch swiped his face with a broad hand; pausing to massage his right temple and forehead with his thumb and fingers. “You didn’t catch those fish, Johnny,” he breathed. “If anything, they caught you.” The memory of his son laying flat on his back with a good baker’s dozen of wriggling trout slapping against his chest and appearing to pin him down was still far too fresh in his mind.
“Whatever,” the younger man muttered.
The single word was just enough to inspire Murdoch Lancer to think up an even longer list of chores.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott was lying on his bed; boots off. His knees were drawn up to his chest, a book resting against his thighs. He looked up as he heard the gentle knock, knowing it was his father that stood at the other side of the door.
Murdoch poked his head inside the room. “I’ve finished talking to your brother,” he said. “You can go say good night to him and listen to his complaints about what a tyrant he has for a father, and how he’ll be an old man before he’s ever allowed out to play with the twins.” His eyes were twinkling when he said the words.
Scott closed the book and swiveled sideways, levering himself up off the bed. He put the book down, careful to insert a book mark between the pages before closing it. He had long suspected his father was aware of his habit of talking to Johnny after his confrontations with Murdoch; the quiet times when he had the opportunity to learn more about his brother. “I take it you’ve assigned him a list of chores he finds objectionable?” he asked.
Murdoch appeared to be debating if he was going to actually enter the room. “A very long list of chores,” he answered. He stifled a yawn. “I’m going on to bed,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning, son.” He turned back to the hallway, leaving the door open behind him.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott padded down the hallway, smiling a bit as he saw the small circle of light radiating from beneath his brother’s door. As was his usual practice, he knocked; twice.
The blond opened the door, stepping through the doorway as if he were sneaking into the room. He leaned back, pressing the door shut. Johnny was sitting up in the bed, taking off his nightshirt. “Is that a good idea, little brother?” he asked, smiling. “You know how Murdoch prowls about at night, making sure you’re all tucked in.”
Johnny was half-in, half-out of the cursed flannel shirt. “I’m gonna burn every fuckin’ one of these things,” he announced, his words muffled by the cloth. His head poked back out of the neck opening, then disappeared as he pulled the nightshirt off; wadded it up and tossed it into the corner. “He don’t make you wear one,” he grumped. “Hand me that shirt.” He pointed to the sweat-stained upper half of his cast off underwear.
Scott turned to open the top drawer of his brother’s dresser. He rummaged through the clothing, pulling out a clean set of long johns. “That shirt’s full of fish scales, Johnny,” he scolded. “And Murdoch knows I’m not in the habit of sleeping in the nude.”
The brunet snickered. “Well, not here, anyway. I kinda remember that time at…”
None-to-gently, Scott tossed the clean long john’s at his brother’s head. “So what drudgery has our father assigned you as penance for your long list of sins?” he teased.
Johnny sighed. It was a wistful sound: loud, exaggerated; worthy of an accomplished actor who had just breathed his last in a tragic death scene. He began pulling on his shirt. “Gonna be a hundred years old before he cuts me loose this time, big brother. Said the twins and I need some time apart to reflect on our behavior. Used those other words, too. You know, ‘I would suggest that you don’t make any plans involving you or the twins for the foreseeable future’.” He snorted. “Suggest, my ass. Told me it was an order.”
Scott was standing by the bed now. He reached out, tousling his brother’s dark mane. “And we all know how you feel about orders, don’t we, brother?” Suddenly, he was boxing the younger man’s ears. “Dynamite, Johnny!” The pasture had been littered with bits and pieces of aquatic life; from clams to tadpoles.
“Hey! You already hollered at me when I was takin’ the bath!” Johnny reached up, fending off the blows; then sucker-punching his brother in the belly. Scott retaliated by burying his brother beneath the thick down pillows.
Out of breath, Johnny struggled to right himself. He was still naked from the waist down, and he pulled the blankets up around his middle. “So how long is it ‘til the foreseeable future?” he breathed. And why the Hell couldn’t the Old Man just say something in plain English, like two weeks or a month, or ten fuckin’ years?
Scott sat down on the edge of the bed; handing off the bottom half of the summer long johns. “Well, the pond is going to take several weeks to make right,” he reasoned. “The cows and their calves took down a section of fence the crew has jerry-rigged together; that’s going to have to be fully repaired.” He frowned at the thought of the spliced wire and the downed posts. “There’s still a pile of dead fish,” he speared his brother with a harsh look, “amongst other things, which are already beginning to smell pretty ripe that have to be buried.” In his mind, he was ticking off the incredible amount of work that needed to be done.
“You’re worse than the Old Man,” Johnny groused. “What I wanna know, brother, is how long Murdoch’s gonna make me tow the line?”
The blond considered the question. “Probably until hunting season,” he answered.
Johnny had just stood up and was climbing into his underwear. He dropped back down onto the bed. “Jesus Christ, Scott!” he swore. “You’re talkin’ months here! It ain’t even really spring yet!!”
Scott shrugged. “According to Teresa, even the hens have stopped laying since you tossed that dynamite.” His right brow arched. “Oh. And Maria told me -- I don’t think Murdoch knows this -- that the window in her room is cracked.”
Johnny moaned. “You think she’s gonna tell?”
The blond shook his head. “No. I think she’s going to make you fix it. Right after she takes her pound of flesh out of your behind with her spoon.”
Another low moan as Johnny collapsed back onto his bed. He turned his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Whacked you pretty good, didn’t she?” he smirked.
“She was aiming for you,” Scott snapped back. “Do you know how lucky you were that the dynamite knocked you out?” he teased. “Imagine the beating you would have gotten if we hadn’t had to carry you home?”
Johnny snorted. “Don’t worry. She made up for it when she was slappin’ that liniment on me.” He was quiet for a moment. “Thought there for awhile the Old Man was gonna tear up my ass, too,” he breathed. “Think I’d druther have the whuppin’ and get it over with instead of…”
“…of having to live for a time with the consequences for your actions?” Scott interrupted.
The younger man had to think about that for a while. “But until huntin’ season?” he croaked.
“Perhaps longer,” Scott answered, smiling, “if you haven’t learned your lesson.” He stood up, patting his brother’s knee. “It’s time to soldier on, little brother. And to get over this penchant for getting into trouble.” His tone softened. “I didn’t come all the way from Boston to find out I had a baby brother, only to lose him to some idiotic plot to become king of the fisherman.”
Johnny’s mouth quirked into a petulant pout. “Who you callin’ an idiot?” he demanded, feigning insult.
“You,” Scott answered. “Now get to sleep. We’re going to have a long day tomorrow.” A long day, a long week, a long month…
The younger man yawned. “Yeah.” He reached up, grabbing his brother’s arm. “Until huntin’ season?” he persisted.
Scott shook his head. “Think of it this way, Johnny. Whereas you didn’t really have adequate time to better organize your fishing expedition, you’re going to have a wonderful opportunity here to strategize the hunt.” He leaned in closer. “You can actually formulate a plan.”
Johnny took a swing at his brother’s head. “Smart ass,” he groused.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny heard the door close. He turned over onto his belly, nesting his head in the soft down pillows; his mind busy. Huntin’ season, he mused. Just why the Hell was Scott bringin’ up huntin’ season?
It struck him like the proverbial bolt of lightening. Another rigged contest, he thought; reminded of the fishing competition. While he could easily best his father and his brother with a hand gun; a rifle -- and by default, a shotgun -- was a different matter. Scott had proven himself with a long gun during the battle with Pardee and on several other occasions, and Murdoch was somewhat of a local legend with his own sharpshooting abilities. He could see it now. His father and his pain-in-the-ass brother bringing down twelve-point bucks, a covey of quail. Fuckin’ pheasants. The Old Man already had a pair of ‘em stuffed and perched atop the bookshelves in the Great Room.
No way, he fumed. He punched his fist into the top most pillow.
Wide awake, he began to plan. Hell, he had until ‘hunting season’, he smirked. Not that it was going to take him that long.
If there was one thing Johnny loved about living at Lancer -- besides Barranca, his brother and three squares a day (okay, the Old Man, Maria, and maybe even T’resa, too) -- was that the hacienda was old; really old. Everywhere around the ranch were reminders of the distant past; the former occupants. The old guard house beside the corral; the tiled roofs, the thick adobe walls. And in some of the out buildings, like the big shed beyond the ice house, were even greater treasures. He was constantly seeking them out in his wanderings.
And on one of those forays, he had found -- what did Scott call it? Oh, yeah, he thought, remembering. A howitzer.
The young man actually giggled. Of course, Scott had gone on and on when they had discovered it. Spanish light artillery, the blond had informed him. And then he was off on a long diatribe about medium muzzle velocity, high trajectories, wind direction….
Johnny turned over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, his mind painting images of trophy kills. Lots of them. And all of them his. Unbidden, a line of poetry Scott had read to him invaded his thoughts. A rose, is a rose, is a rose…
Kinda like, he thought, a cannon, is a cannon, is a cannon.