Disclaimer: Nada. Aucun. Kein. None. Let Fox figure it out.
It happened suddenly; with a ferocity that caused a great whoosh as the still evening air was ruptured. Johnny Lancer’s head snapped sideways; a loud roaring in his left ear as if someone had fired a pistol right next to his temple, something that had happened on more occasions than he cared to remember. The sharp sting left him seeing stars.
His first response was instinctual; to strike back. Second big mistake. The swift back-handed slap, although measured, almost knocked him off his feet. He decided maybe something his big brother called a strategic withdrawal was in order, but that wasn’t happening either.
Nope. There he was in the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs, the formidable brick wall that was Murdoch Lancer standing between him and the front door. The only retreat that was feasible was to turn around and make for the stairs. The Old Man was more than happy to give him a helping hand; right across his ass.
Scott, Stetson in hand, stepped across the front threshold into the hallway. He watched as his younger brother bolted up the stairs, holding his breath at the near-collision with Maria, who was coming down the staircase with a basket of dirty laundry; and braced himself for what he knew was coming next. Johnny disappeared into his bedroom, slammed the door; reopened it, and slammed it shut a second time, the rafters shaking.
He held his piece until Maria -- who was muttering under her breath -- stormed towards the kitchen. “Am I to assume my brother won’t be accompanying me into Green River this evening?” he asked drolly.
Murdoch harrumphed, his reply terse. “Yes,” he growled. Without another word, the big Scot turned and headed into the Great Room and went directly to his desk.
For a brief moment, Scott considered following his father into the Great Room to find out what had happened, also debating a quick trip upstairs to his brother’s room for Johnny’s story regarding what had occurred. But then a third option came to him, and common sense prevailed. Whistling, he put on his hat and headed back out the door. Rachel Fairchild was waiting for him at the Silver Dollar, and he was quite certain a conversation with her was going to be a lot more pleasurable than one of Murdoch’s rants, or another of Johnny’s sad tales of woe.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The clock in the Great Room was chiming the bewitching hour as Scott Lancer stepped across the threshold. He hung up his hat and gun belt, hesitating a bit when he realized his father was sitting in the chair by the fire, his feet comfortably propped up on the ottoman. Murdoch was reading. He looked up when his elder son stepped down into the room, waiting to speak until the grandfather clock tolled the final time. “You’re home early, son,” he greeted affably.
Scott dipped his head, avoiding his father’s gaze as he helped himself to a half-measure of Glenlivet. He started to take a drink, then reconsidered. “I didn’t realize how much guilt Johnny can generate when he isn’t even around,” he muttered.
Murdoch closed his book, his brow furrowing. “Excuse me?”
The blond changed his mind about the drink, downing the scotch in a single swallow. “Every one was asking where he was; why he wasn’t with me. Señor and Señora Baldemero. Oh, and Sam, and the widow Hargis. Val.”
There was a soft chuffing sound as Murdoch attempted to stifle a chuckle. “And the young ladies at the Silver Dollar?” he asked, trying hard to keep a straight face.
Scott saluted his father with his empty glass. “Very perceptive, sir,” he acknowledged. He sighed. “Everyone wanted to know if he was sick, or hurt.”
Murdoch stood up and helped himself to a refill, pouring his son a second drink; a full measure. “As opposed to Val, who would come right out and ask you if he was in trouble.”
Scott laughed. “Well, Val does know him better than anyone else.” He raked his fingers through his hair; not because it needed grooming, but because he was nervous.
His father didn’t miss the move. “So what are you feeling guilty about, Scott? That you were unable to answer the questions, or that Johnny wasn’t with you?”
“Both,” Scott answered honestly. A small frown marred his otherwise handsome features. “What happened, Murdoch,” he asked. “In the hallway, before I left for town?”
“Now if I told you that, son, I’d have to shoot you,” Murdoch answered slyly, his tone light; teasing. “Talk to your brother,” he suggested. “Maria relented about his having supper, and she’s left some sandwiches in the ice box.” He raised his head, shooting a mild form of the look in his elder son’s direction. “But no dessert, Scott. She was adamant he was not to have any dessert.” He was quiet a moment, choosing his next words very carefully; his gaze fastened on the amber liquid at the bottom of his glass. “I don’t want you to betray any confidences, son, but I would appreciate knowing his version of the story.”
Scott was still on his feet. He finished his drink. “Not even a hint of what occurred before you throw me to the lions?”
“No, son,” Murdoch answered. “You are entirely on your own.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott made the brief detour to the kitchen, and then took the back stairs leading up to the second floor. Crossing the hallway, he checked the carpet beneath Johnny’s door; seeing the light. It was a signal they used -- well, sort of a signal. If Johnny was in a mood to talk when he was is trouble or ill, he would wait up with his light on; if he didn’t want to talk, the light was simply not there.
The light was on. Scott tapped once on the door and then opened it and stepped across the threshold; the tray of food balanced against his right hip.
Johnny was perched on the window sill across from his bed; the pale light of the full moon bathing his face in a soft glow. “Sure took you time, brother.” He sounded a tad pissed.
Scott crossed the room and placed the tray on the bedside table, watching as his brother pretended not to notice. With a flick of his wrist, he whipped the napkin from the tray; displaying the two glasses of milk and two roast beef sandwiches. “Voilà!” He heard Johnny’s sigh. “Not hungry?” he asked.
“Where’s the pie?” Johnny countered, still not moving. He frowned when his belly rumbled, his body betraying him.
“No dessert,” Scott replied, helping himself to a sandwich and taking a bite. “Maria was adamant you were not to have dessert.” His eyebrows lifted. “I don’t suppose you would know why that happened, little brother?”
“Bet the Old Man got dessert,” Johnny grumbled, ignoring the question. He shoved himself away from the window, lifting a corner of the slice of bread that topped the stack of roast beef. Discarding the bread, he picked up a slab of meat. “So, you have a good time in Green River all by your lonesome?” he sniped, talking with his mouth full because he knew it would tick off his brother.
Scott ignored the younger man’s bad manners, carefully chewing his food and swallowing before answering. “It wasn’t all that lonesome, Johnny,” he grinned. “In fact, the ladies at the Silver Dollar were quite accommodating, and Rachel …”
An annoyed ‘phhtt’ put a quick halt to the blond’s obvious boasting. “What ladies?” Johnny pouted, brushing bits of chewed beef off his chin with his sleeve. He pointedly avoided making eye contact with his elder brother, choosing instead to stare at something on the floor. “Can’t fuckin’ believe you went into town without me,” he groused; flopping down on the bed.
It was the first time since entering the room Scott had a good look at his brother’s face. He moved closer to the bed, reaching out to cup Johnny’s chin against his palm, his thumb stroking the beginnings of a small bruise beneath the younger man’s left eye. “What happened?” he demanded.
Johnny pulled away. “Nothin’,” he fibbed, averting his eyes. “Back off.”
Scott sat down on the edge of the bed. “Not until you tell me what happened,” he snapped. Silence. “Damn it, Johnny, answer me!”
Shit, the younger man thought. He should have turned off the light and just hunkered in for the night. Hoisting himself up on his elbows, he scooted up on the bed. “He belted me,” he said, reaching up to finger his cheek. “Twice.” So much for confession being good for the soul.
Except he hadn’t really fessed up to anything.
Scott realized now he had arrived in the hallway at the very end of Murdoch and Johnny’s altercation; which he had assumed was just another of their verbal sparring matches. But this… He reached out, examining his brother’s face; and sighed. In the time they had been home, he had never known Murdoch to do anything more than smack the boy’s rear end. And then usually with good reason. “Why?” he ground out.
Knew that was comin’, Johnny mused. He began toying with the top button on his shirt, rolling the toggle back and forth between his thumb and forefinger. “You tell me,” he muttered. He cocked his head and shot his brother a lop-sided grin; the one that radiated all the innocence of a ten-year-old about to ask a younger playmate to pull his finger. “You gonna go kick his ass for me?” The smile grew. “You bein’ the big brother and all; you gonna straighten the Old Man out?” Now there’d be a fight worth seeing. Scott had one hell of a right hook.
“We are not playing this game,” Scott fumed, sure and certain his kid brother wasn’t being all that forthcoming. He levered himself up off the bed, dragging his brother with him. “What did you do?”
Johnny’s butt was now firmly planted on the edge of the mattress. Scott was in his full big brother mode; a short hair away from becoming all Lieutenant Lancer. Not a good thing. Scott could be a real asshole when he got riled. He shrugged. “Just gave him some directions,” he answered, skirting the truth.
“I beg your pardon?” Scott’s hands were firmly locked on his brother’s shoulders, his fingers digging into the soft flesh above his collar bones.
“Hey!” Johnny grabbed his brother’s wrists. “That hurts!”
Scott pulled free. “Not as much as it’s going to hurt if you don’t give me a straight answer!” He grabbed his brother’s arm. “Now exactly what do you mean, you ‘just gave him some directions’?”
Shit! Shit, shit, shit!! “Told him to go to Hell,” the younger man confessed, whispering.
Like pulling teeth, Scott thought, scrubbing a weary hand across his face. Still, he wasn’t sure exactly what Johnny had just muttered. “What?”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “TOLD HIM TO GO TO HELL!” he repeated petulantly.
Scott shook his head. He inhaled, deeply. Reaching out, he grabbed his brother’s arm and pulled him to his feet. “You’re coming with me,” he said.
Johnny tried putting on the brakes; a useless effort since he was in his stockinged feet. “Where?”
“Downstairs,” Scott answered; taking advantage of the waxed floor as he pulled his brother along. “You’re going to apologize to Murdoch.” He opened the bedroom door and shoved Johnny towards the hallway.
Using both hands, the younger man grabbed onto the door’s casing. “That ain’t happenin’!”
Fed up, Scott wrapped a long arm around his brother’s neck and pulled him into a headlock. The wrestling match continued into the hallway, to the top of the stairs, and down the long staircase.
Murdoch heard the scuffling in the hallway; recognizing the raucous pummeling that was occurring, a sound he’d become familiar within the past few months. It usually happened when his sons were at play; good-natured rough-housing when the young men were testing each others mettle like young colts vying for dominance in a herd of mustangs.
This latest skirmish, however, sounded more serious. The blows were punctuated with a colorful string of curses in Spanish, and then a chorus of “you will,” and “will not!”
Sighing, the tall rancher levered himself up from his chair. “Lord, give me strength,” he muttered, heading towards the arched doorway. He stopped midstride as his sons stepped down into the Great Room.
Scott’s arm was tightly wrapped around Johnny’s shoulders; nothing particularly fraternal in the way he was holding on. If anything, he looked like he was struggling to keep from committing a murder most foul. Both young men were in a state of total disarray; their hair a mess and their clothing rumpled. “Johnny has something he’d like to say to you, sir,” Scott announced.
Johnny elbowed his brother in the stomach and was rewarded with a quick, flat-handed thwack to the back of his head. “Fuck!” he cursed, bunching his shoulders. “Don’t do that!”
The skin beneath Murdoch’s right eye was twitching. “John.”
That single word, the way Murdoch dragged it out was more than enough to bring the youngest Lancer boy to attention. Well, as close to attention as Johnny Lancer could muster.
Johnny shot daggers at his elder brother. When that didn’t work, he tried the Madrid glare. Scott snickered. Compared to their father’s version of the look, Johnny Madrid’s cold-eyed stare was about as intimidating as a mouse trying to terrorize a cat. “Apologize,” Scott ordered.
“Already said I was sorry,” Johnny muttered.
“Repeat after me,” Scott instructed, pulling his brother even closer in a tight, one-armed bear hug. “‘I’m sorry for talking out of turn, Murdoch. My apologies for the lack of respect and the poor judgment in my choice of words. It will never happen again.’”
Johnny’s blue eyes opened wide, his mouth agape. He looked up at his brother as if the man had lost his mind. Then, turning to his father, “What he said,” he smirked, pointing at his sibling.
Murdoch Lancer was not amused. His eyes narrowed, and he took a single step towards his sons.
Whoa, Johnny thought. He attempted to back up but was held in place by his brother’s strong arm.
“Just do it,” Scott instructed.
Johnny was pouting; looking very much like the hurt child he could sometimes be when he was playing his family. And it usually worked, too. Even on Murdoch when the circumstances were right.
This was not one of those times. Johnny knew that for certain when he saw his father’s eyes narrowing.
The young man’s expression changed, becoming more thoughtful as he contemplated his options; the tip of his tongue appearing at the corner of his mouth briefly as he considered his next move. He took a deep breath. “Okay, Murdoch,” he began. “I was out of line. I shouldn’t a told you to go to hell.”
Murdoch made a valiant effort to suppress the smile and succeeded. “I believe your actual words, John, were ‘you can just go to fucking hell, Old Man’,” he said, emphasizing the obscenity.
Johnny physically winced. The words sounded a hell of a lot worse coming out his father’s mouth; but then, Murdoch rarely cursed. He felt Scott’s fingers dig into his upper arm. Scott wasn’t any great fan of the “f” word, either; but it was the way that Johnny had of tossing around the scathing Old Man that really annoyed him. Especially the habit Johnny had of making it sound like something purposely disrespectful and intentionally cruel. Even now, when he knew the truth about his mother; about the true character of his father. Murdoch was a tough tune-caller, but he was good man who had tried -- was still trying -- to make up for the mistakes of the past.
The young man took another deep breath. “I shouldn’t a cussed,” he murmured. Aw, hell, he thought, might as well spill it all. “I shouldn’t a told you to go to fuckin’ hell, and…” he moved a bit away from his brother, “…and I shouldn’t a took a swing at you when you smacked me across the mouth.”
Scott had turned loose of his brother. He stood, one hip cocked, a benign expression on his face; but a whole lot going on behind the pale blue eyes. “And?”
Johnny decided it was a good time to take a good close look at the loose thread on the toe of his right sock. “And it won’t happen again,” he sighed. That part didn’t come out as convincingly as he had hoped. But then, he really had a problem with making promises he wasn’t sure he could keep.
Murdoch nodded. “I’m going to accept your apology, John,” he said. “But if you’re fostering any hope for an apology from me for slapping your face…” he reached out, cupping the younger man’s chin in his palm, “…that’s not going to happen. The two of us not agreeing is one thing; but you losing your temper and being blatantly disrespectful? I’m not going to tolerate that, not anymore.” He hesitated. “Understood?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah,” he breathed. Then, realizing his father expected more, “Yes, sir.”
Murdoch’s fingers lifted to the boy’s cheek; a genuine tenderness in him as he gently patted his son’s face. “Go to bed,” he said. “You’re going to have a very long day tomorrow.”
Scott watched as his brother headed back into the hallway; shaking his head at what had just occurred. He turned to smile at his father. “A final night cap, sir?” he suggested, nodding at the whisky decanter.
Murdoch watched as his elder son did the honors. Accepting the glass, he nodded towards the couch; taking the lead and secure in the knowledge Scott would follow him. He eased his long frame into the large over-stuffed chair beside the fireplace. He waited until Scott had taken his seat before speaking. “I suppose you think I went too far, slapping your brother.”
Scott’s chin dropped against his chest; his tanned face a pleasant contrast to the navy blue shirt he was wearing. It was clear he was contemplating his next words, a tenuous smile playing on his lips. “I think Johnny went too far,” he said finally; the smile growing. “I’m also amazed he’s still on his feet and his jaw is not broken.” Scott lifted his head to look directly into his father’s cobalt eyes. “Buck Addison,” he said, recalling the tremendous right cross his father had delivered, not once, but several times when the two men were fighting.
Murdoch snorted. “I was disciplining your brother, Scott; not trying to beat him senseless.” God, it had felt good, putting Addison on his back. Not that he was going to admit that to his son. It was, after all, his responsibility to provide a good example for his boys. “I think I used an admirable amount of restraint, considering what your brother’s attitude was, and what he said.”
Scott was nodding his head. “It must be a Lancer thing,” he murmured; more to himself than his father, but loud enough that Murdoch could make out the words.
Murdoch’s head came forward slightly. “A Lancer thing?” he prompted.
The blond shifted in his seat, leaning back a bit and staring into his glass. “Grandfather slapped me once,” he said, the words coming softly; almost a whisper. “The night he found out I had enlisted.”
Oh, that’s not going to pass, Murdoch thought, studying his son’s face. “And would you care to tell me why?” It was clear from his tone he expected an answer.
Scott hefted his glass in a subtle salute, a smile creasing the skin at the corners of his eyes. “For telling him to go to hell,” he answered.