Left Hand of God

by  Kit


Disclaimer:  Ain’t got one.  They are against my religion.

This is my version of how it might have been; and it is a prelude of things to come in Left Hand of God, a much longer story. 

Some sexual reference; and perhaps even an explanation why, in Blood Rock and Glory, Johnny wasn’t wearing his pistol at the dinner table…




The two young men were on foot; the recent dry spell turning the dirt beneath their feet into clouds of dust.  Johnny Lancer’s red shirt was now a dull orange from the pulverized clay, the only hint of its original color the sweat-soaked fabric across his shoulders and beneath his arms.  That he was not a happy young man was obvious in his muttered grumblings: a string of particularly foul curse words coming as he lost his footing and went down on his butt.

Scott was to the left and slightly behind his brother.  He reached out in a failed attempt to catch his brother’s arm, ending up with a handful of shirt.  “Slow down, Johnny,” he cautioned, helping his brother up.  “Those beasts aren’t going to quit playing hide-and-seek anytime soon; not when they have the advantage of this much cover.”  He took a deep breath, still holding on to his sibling; choosing his next words carefully.  “Are you certain you saw them heading in this direction?”

Johnny turned to face his brother; knocking his hand away.  “Hell, no, Boston,” he clipped.  He waved ambiguously at the tangled thicket that was canopied above them and then at the spider web of indentations in the dirt.  “I just figured I’d come this way, take a short cut back to the fuckin’ hacienda; and tell the Old Man what a fuckin’ great time we’re havin’ out here chasing his fuckin’ cows!”

Eyes narrowing, Scott surveyed his younger brother.  He chose to ignore the outburst, nodding at the ground as he gestured towards the maze of brush tunnels that spread out in several directions beneath the thick growth.  “I think we’ve come too far in,” he said, keeping his tone neutral.  “The calf would have trouble negotiating these pathways, and as for the cow and the heifer…”

Johnny’s fingers were tapping against the butt of his pistol.  “I should’ a shot that bitch when she broke loose from the main bunch,” he muttered.  “The heifer and the calf, too.” 

The brindled Hereford/Mexican Longhorn cross had been a problem right from the beginning when they had hazed her out of a dry creek bed; an early spring calf at her side, and a yearling heifer that was still nursing.  Both young men had been surprised to see the Lancer brand on the cow’s left flank; the animal definitely not the usual quality of livestock found on the estancia.  The animal was foul-tempered, horse and rope wise; and more agile than the heftier beeves that grazed in the lower pastures.  Cip’s explanation of the cow’s presence was as much an enigma as the animal itself.  The Segundo had simply shrugged his shoulders and declared: Uno debe recordar el pasado para apreciar el presente, y planear para el futuro...  (One must remember the past to appreciate the present, and plan for the future...)

A sudden rustling from the outer berm of brambles and dirt immediately caught the brothers’ attention; an audible sigh coming from Johnny as he recognized its source.  Two nostrils and a velvet fringed nose poked through the tangled underbrush; the golden hair dappled by the sparse sunlight.

“Dammit, Barranca,” Johnny swore, bypassing his brother as he headed for the bushes.  “Don’t say it,” he said without turning around; knowing damned good and well Scott was about to say something smart about how fuckin’ stupid it was to teach a horse to untie knots and constantly feeding them lump sugar.  Using both arms, he parted the thick, waist high scrub; immediately regretting the move as his right shirt sleeve became entangled in a cluster of stunted ocotillo.  There was a ripping sound as he withdrew his arm, followed by particularly vile swear word; conchetumare[gl1] He paused just long enough to swipe at the bubble of blood that appeared on his forearm beneath the tear, and then turned back to his chore.

Scott watched as his brother backed the palomino out of the scrub, following their movements by the sounds.  He smiled a bit as Johnny disappeared, hearing the breaking, snapping and tearing of undergrowth; which was accompanied by even more colorful language.  Then it became still; very still.

Taking a deep breath, Scott made a slow circle, enjoying the relative silence; his quick mind assessing the terrain.  When they had first ridden into the small meadow, their view of the solitary cluster of scrub oak and stunted vegetation had come as a surprise to both young men.  It was like seeing an oasis in the middle of a vast desert; an incongruity in the otherwise treeless expanse of knee-high grass. 

Cipriano, always eager to explain the varied terrain that was Lancer to the Patrón’s recently returned sons, had related the story.  The legend.   Once, he told them, a great river had wound its way through the valley, a source of life for the Indian peoples -- the Chumash and others -- who lived in the area.  War had come, and the opposing tribes fought for control of the water.  The prayers of the competing shamans had provoked the gods; and a great earthquake occurred, swallowing up the river.  The cluster of malformed shrubbery marked the place where the waters had disappeared into the ground; where the great river now ran beneath the earth.

Scott’s grin widened.  He firmly believed legends and myths of this nature were inspired by the truths of natural cataclysm; humankind’s way of dealing with forces beyond their comprehension. 

The young man’s musings were interrupted by a new source of noise; coming from the direction Johnny had gone.  The thrashing about in the thick overgrowth was punctuated by occasional outbursts from Johnny, who was swearing in two languages; and another sound.  High-pitched squeals sounded, followed by more scrambling about in the thicket; and then the sound of good-natured boyish laughter.

The laughter suddenly ceased.  Scott heard Johnny call out in surprise; a loud Jesus!, followed by a burst of panic-fueled animal screeching; the commotion within the maze of brambles increasing ten-fold.  A flock of ravens exploded from the lower and upper branches of the thicket, the thunderous flutter of wings and the caterwauling of the birds momentarily drowning out the other animal sounds. 

Scott charged into the lush growth of prickly shrubs; coming to an abrupt halt as a half dozen small javelinas burst forth from the underbrush and darted between his legs.  Instinctively, he turned sideways; allowing the animals a clear path, four more piglets following in the wake of the others.  A cold wave of panic clawed at the young man; memories of his days as a forager for Sheridan’s vast army coming back to haunt him.  He knew, in his gut, that wherever feral piglets roamed, a wild, ill-tempered sow would not be far behind.

Resolute, the tall blond plunged deeper into the thick vegetation, tunneling towards the source of the increasing noise.  He could hear the labored grunting of the wild pig along with a series of hollow-sounding thunks.

Johnny was pinned to the ground on his right side; his left fist pounding hard against the feral sow’s broad head as he struggled to pry his pistol loose from its holster.  Already, his left pant leg was soaked in blood, the stain growing as the javelina’s tusk tore deeper into the soft flesh of his calf.

Scott drew his pistol.  He thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger; hearing the satisfying thwack as the lead slug penetrated the sow’s right hip.  Instantly, the animal wheeled to find the source of its pain, head lowered as it scrambled forward, intent on a new target.  The blond’s second shot was true.  A finger-sized hole appeared dead center of the javelina’s wide forehead; the animal collapsing onto its knees and then dropping fully to the ground.  Scott raised his pistol and fired a third shot into the air.  It was the prearranged signal when they were out on the range; three shots in rapid succession, a clear call for help.

He was on his knees at his brother’s side before the air cleared.  “Don’t,” he ordered, brushing Johnny’s hand away from the torn calzoneras.  Rising up slightly, he dug into the left-hand pocket of his trousers and withdrew his knife. 

Johnny was struggling to stay focused.  He watched as Scott engaged the spring-loaded stiletto with a simple press of his thumb; a tapered five-inch blade appearing and flashing blue-white beneath the shrub-filtered rays of a high-noon sun.  “Jeez, brother,” he muttered, nodding at the knife, “that the style in Boston?”  He was panting now.  “She didn’t leave nothin’ in there that needs diggin’ out, ya know.”  Shifting position, he attempted to rise up; only to feel his brother’s flat palm pressing firmly against his chest.  Once again, his hand dropped to his pant leg.

Scott swatted his brother’s fingers aside.  “I need to take a look,” he said, concentrating on the tear in Johnny’s pants.  Immediately, he began quickly sawing at the threads securing the silver conchos.

Johnny’s hands were trembling, but he still managed another swipe at his brother’s hand.  “Hey!  These are my good pants,” he gibed, flashing a weak grin.

In spite of the grim circumstance, Scott smiled.  “These are your only pants,” he teased.  Pulling the fabric away from his brother’s leg, he surveyed the damage.  A four inch gash, bone deep where the sow’s tusk had first penetrated, lay open and pulsing blood.   His next move was to quickly unbuckle his belt; pull it free of the loops and fashioning a tourniquet.  Johnny had already passed out.  

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

They were still finding their way; all of them, creeping along in their progress at this family thing.  Once again, circumstances were requiring them to work together for the common good; the focus -- as it had been after Pardee’s raid -- to get Johnny well.  Although Scott and Murdoch had avoided the intimacy of long drawn-out conversations as to how the job would be accomplished, each was determined in their own way to make it work. 

Murdoch, of course, was adamant in his belief it was simply a matter of ‘getting that boy to learn he needs to mind what he’s been told!’ and ‘to stop behaving like a truculent child’ when all everyone was trying to do was help him heal.  Scott, on the other hand, felt the proper approach was to overlook his brother’s petulance, and to bribe, cajole and -- on occasion -- employ outright trickery to get the younger man to comply.     

Finally, after a rocky start, Johnny was on the high road to recovery; so much so, he was up and about and chafing under all the continued scrutiny.  Everybody, it seemed, was still watching him; fussing over him and totally ignoring him when he kept insisting he was fine.

The elder Lancer son sympathized with his recently acquired sibling.  Life at Lancer was a constant source of surprise, not all of them particularly pleasant.  This morning had been an excellent lesson in family dysfunction.  Johnny and Murdoch had once again managed to turn what should have been an enjoyable, Saturday morning repast into a shouting match regarding Johnny’s stubborn insistence on wearing his pistol in the house and at the table, and tempers had flared.  Murdoch had ordered Johnny from the table; a moot point, since Johnny had already knocked over his chair in his hurry to depart.

The usual tension that hung over the hacienda after one of Murdoch and Johnny’s head-butting sessions was oppressive.  Murdoch had withdrawn to his study at the center of the house, Maria and Teresa were off consoling each other in the kitchen (and no doubt creating some comfort food to soothe Johnny’s temper) and Johnny…

Johnny -- after fleeing to the barn -- had been hauled back to the main house by a very irate Cipriano, who had done a commendable job of lecturing the young man regarding the fact Sam Jenkins had still not cleared him to ride.  The Segundo had also promised his nephew there would be consecuencias muy horribles (very dire consequences) if Johnny so much as stuck his head out the door or trespassed again into the yard.  

Scott felt a real need to lighten the mood.  Stepping down into the Great Room, he watched as his younger brother adjusted his gun belt for what seemed to be the hundredth time that very morning.  The frustration was clearly etched in his sibling’s stance and countenance, Johnny’s right hip slightly cocked, his jaws tightly set.

The young man had lost considerable weight during his recent confinement.  His calzoneras, now repaired, hung precariously on his slim hips, a good inch lower than usual at his regular weight.  The fact the boy was in his stockinged feet added to his consternation; as if he had not only lost pounds, but that he had also diminished in height, and he was obviously not pleased.  That truth was further confirmed by the string of clearly audible curse words that tumbled in wild abandon, each one coming louder than the last; the final outburst explosive. 

Scott was relieved Murdoch wasn’t present.  The fact Johnny was still wearing the gun belt in complete defiance to what his father had ordered was bad enough, but the language… The last time Johnny had cut loose with a string of swear words as volatile as the ones he had just mouthed had ended with a trip to the upstairs water closet and a healthy dose of Murdoch’s shaving soap.

Moving closer, Scott addressed his sibling.  “I can see two possible solutions to your problem, brother,” he smiled.  The grin broadened when Johnny looked up.  “One,” he held up a single finger, “you can convince Maria to serve you larger portions, “or…” a second digit paired with the other, “two, you can punch another set of holes in that belt.”

Johnny snorted; his frustration still apparent in the petulant frown.  “Yeah.  Well, I figure there might be a third option.  You can put those solutions someplace the sun don’t shine and just shut the fuck up!”

The blond’s right shoulder lifted in a slight shrug.  Johnny’s temperament ran extremely hot or exceedingly cold, with brief interludes that could be considered calm.  It was the brief interludes Scott longed to see more often, the times when the harsh Madrid façade dropped away and the boy, Johnny Lancer, emerged.   “Just trying to help, little brother;” he grinned, “a small bit of sage advice from your elder, wiser...”

“Wise ass,” Johnny interrupted.  The pout had disappeared and had been replaced by the tremulous hint of a smile.  His fingers were busy; finally securing the holster in place, nimbly tying the leather thong that held the sheath snug against his slim thigh.  Just as he finished, his gaze settled on his brother’s left hand.  On the thing Scott was holding in his left hand.  “What’s that?” he asked.

Scott looked down, a slight grin tugging at lips and creasing the skin at the corners of his pale eyes.  “A gift,” he said, juggling the canister against his palm.  “For you.”

The simple declaration was more than enough to peak the younger man’s interest.  “For me?” he echoed.  Johnny loved getting presents; a new experience that filled him with a foreign warmth that tugged at his innermost being.  His head canted slightly as the anticipation turned into suspicion.  “Why?”

The subtle shifting in Johnny’s posture did not go unnoticed by the tall Bostonian.  “It’s what big brothers do,” he cajoled; “buy gifts for our younger siblings.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.  “And you’d know about that how?” he challenged.  “You ain’t got another brother stashed somewhere I don’t know about?”

Scott shook his head.  “Like you, Johnny, I did have a life previous to Lancer.”  He waved ambiguously at their surroundings.  “Some of the friends I grew up with had numerous siblings, and I was very astute in observing how they behaved with each other.  Surely you had acquaintances in Mexico who had brothers and sisters…”

Johnny’s laughter cut into the other man’s conversation.  “Mexico’s Catholic,” he volunteered.  “They got that ‘be fruitful and multiply’ thing down real good.”  Coming forward slightly, he tapped his brother’s arm.  “Hell, I knew a family once that had worked themselves all through the A, B, C’s and had to start all over again, namin’ the new ones,” he teased.  He made a series of stair-step movements with his left hand.

The game was on.  “Right,” Scott scoffed as he cuffed his brother’s left ear.  Then, his right eyebrow rising, he made a speculation of his own, his voice lowering as if sharing a secret; their foreheads almost touching when he leaned in.  “You don’t suppose that’s why the hacienda has thirty-seven rooms, do you?” he queried, his eyes bright with mischief, “that Murdoch had plans on filling up this house with…”

“Jesus, brother!” Johnny’s face immediately betrayed his shock and discomfort as a dozen images, each one more bawdy than the next, stampeded across his brain to assault his inner eye.  Shuddering, he looked for a distraction.  “Gimme,” he ordered, making a grab for the can Scott was still clutching in his hand.

Scott immediately recognized the diversion and wasn’t quite willing to let go.  The idea of his brother -- his woman chasing, saloon carousing, infamous pistolero kid brother -- going all green at the suggestion their father could do the deed amused him.  “We aren’t here as the result of virgin birth, Johnny,” he admonished.  A wicked grin fired his eyes.  “I mean, we can deduce for certain that on at least two,” he repeated the word, “TWO occasions, Murdoch…”

Johnny backed up a full pace.  “I ain’t listenin’ to this,” he snapped.  Like a child not wanting to hear what was coming next, he jammed his fists against his ears, a deep frown appearing as he tried to will his brother into silence.

“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” Scott sighed, shaking his head.  They often played this game now; a testing of the waters to learn about each other, easier than asking direct questions and trespassing into unfamiliar territories too painful and tumultuous to share.  “Please tell me I am not going to have to sit you down for a talk about the birds and the bees.”

Even though his brother was almost whispering, Johnny still knew what he was saying.  Lip-reading was a skill he had picked up out of necessity when he was nothing more than a snot-nosed kid, a talent that had served him well when he and his Mama were working one of their frequent cons.  “Like there’s anything you could tell me about diddlin’, Boston!”

Scott had moved to a spot closer to the fireplace.  “Maybe, maybe not,” he grinned, never taking his eyes off the canister.  He was playing with the tin can he was holding; flexing his arm, allowing the canister to rest sideways in his palm before tapping it with his fingers with enough force to push it up his forearm to his bicep; extending his arm again to let it roll back down into his cupped hand.  He repeated the balancing act several times, hitting the can harder each time and forcing it back along the same path. 

The stunt was mesmerizing.  Johnny found himself watching, open admiration on his face as he watched the tenuous balancing act.  If the can faltered even slightly from its course, Scott kept it under control by a barely conceivable shifting of his upper torso; his concentration never wavering.  It was too much for the younger man.  Snake like, he reached out, snatching the container.  “Thought you said that was mine,” he groused.

Scott flexed his arm a final time, the muscles clearly defined beneath the dark blue shirt.  “A bit belatedly,” he said.   “I bought it whilst you were still recovering; a ‘get well’ gift of sorts.” 

Johnny was shaking the can right next to his left ear.  “Yeah?  You hang on to it, just in case things went south?”

The blond shook his head.  “No,” he answered.  “As irritable as you tended to be while you were recuperating, I just didn’t think you were all that deserving.”  The memories brought the hint of a smile.  Johnny’s foul mood, his waspish ‘I’m fine’ every time he was asked how he was feeling had driven even the saintly Maria to take weeping refuge in her kitchen.

“That right?” Johnny countered.  “You ain’t never seen me even close to irritable, brother.”  He smirked.  “So what is it?”  He shook the can another time.

Scott reached out, tapping the label with his crooked forefinger.  “Some of those hard candies you keep trying to plunder when Murdoch parcels them out,” he answered.

“Parcels ‘em out,” Johnny muttered.  “Keeps ‘em under lock and key like they was made of gold or somethin’.”

Scott’s grin blossomed into a full blown smile.  Murdoch Lancer considered himself an American through and through but retained a deep fondness for two things from his native land: whisky and flavored rock candy.  While he was willing to share, he did tend to be judicious in his dispensation.  “And you don’t suppose that has anything to do with the fact after you’ve consumed a handful you’re prone to get a tad bit rambunctious?” 

Johnny shrugged.  “So I didn’t make it out the front door after I came off the banister,” he frowned.  “Big deal.”

There was a loud chuffing sound as Scott failed to hold back the laughter.  “You were almost flying when you made that slide, brother!”  He raised his hands and grabbed at the air.  “And then your futile attempt to take hold of the chandelier and swing out across the threshold on to the portico…”

It was obvious the brunet was highly insulted.  In two steps he was right up in this brother’s face.  He tapped Scott’s chest with the still unopened tin of candy; hard enough the contents rattled.  “‘Futile attempt’, my ass,” he groused, still smarting over the memory that his well-planned stunt -- Jesus, he had even taken the time to prop the damned door open -- had gone awry.  “I caught on to that damned chandelier just fine and woulda made it through the front door and clear into the yard if…”

Scott’s eyes were dancing.  “…if Murdoch hadn’t chosen that precise moment to come through the door?”

Johnny’s chin dropped against his chest, the right-hand corner of his lower lip disappearing as he remembered the collision.  Hell, if he hadn’t torn some stitches loose when he landed, the Old Man would’ve probably made good on his threat to treat him like a ten year old.  He shook the thought away.  “Yeah, well this time…” starting to unwind the string that secured the lid, he stepped back, “…I’ll eat every damned one of ‘em, shoot myself clear over the hitch rail and clear to the barn,” he bragged.

And then it happened.  There was slightly less than an inch of paper and cardboard left when the container lid shot free and whizzed by Johnny’s nose, followed by the coiled, spring-bodied snake that erupted skyward along with a half-dozen pieces of foil-wrapped candies.


The shots came in rapid succession; the first two followed by dull thwacks as the lead slugs ploughed into the thick plaster at floor level and immediately flattened.  The third shot -- after sending the tin can spinning -- ricocheted off the hard ceramic tile that framed the arched doorway, and was followed by the shattering of glass, a metallic ping; and the duller, single dong of the Grandfather Clock. 

The brothers exchanged a sobering glance, whispered curses colliding.  ‘Damn.’ ‘¡Chinga!’

Scott was the first to recover.  “Johnny…” he breathed, reaching out to tap the still warm barrel of the younger man’s Colt.  “I’ve never seen anything like that, ever.”

Johnny’s face lit up at his brother’s awe-inspired compliment.  Hell, the man had fought in a war, and he’d certainly been no slouch when Pardee came callin’. “Yeah?  Well, watch this.”  He swung slightly to his left, crouching a bit as he fanned the pistol.  BANG, BANG.  Both shots were true, the two pennants that had topped the fore and aft masts of Murdoch’s prized ship disintegrating into nothingness as two finger sized holes appeared in the French window leading into the gardens; the glass spidering. 

Awestruck, Scott whistled; his eyes wide.  “That, brother, was incredible.”  Somewhere in the house a woman screamed.  “Insane, but incredible.”

Johnny turned his head slightly, his cheeks coloring as he spied Cipriano.  The Segundo had just come through one of the French doors, a short barreled scatter gun in his right hand.  Mateo was right behind him with a carbine.  “Tío,” he greeted, a sheepish grin appearing as he displayed his revolver.  Other ranch hands were arriving on the scene, fully armed and peering into the open windows before being curtly dismissed by the foreman.

From deep within the bowels of the great house a door slammed open; followed by the heavy, quick tread both young men recognized.  Scott grabbed his brother’s arm and yanked him towards the side door.

“Stay right where you are; both of you!” Murdoch thundered, stepping down into the main room and quickly surveying the damage.  A coiled cylinder of shredded fabric laid dead center of the Great Room floor amidst a scattering of foil wrapped candies; a dented canister slowly rolling across the floor to finally come to a stop at the bottom of the stairs.

The big man’s eyes lifted to the face of the Grandfather clock, his jaws flexing as he saw the shattered crystal; his blue eyes becoming the color of dead ash.  There was a gouge on clock’s ornate face, the gilt and enamel façade dented and scarred just above the keyhole.  The delicately wrought hour hand was stuttering impotently on its pike, the gear obviously bent.

And then he spotted the ship.

There was an audible gasp as both Lancer sons swallowed back the bile that was threatening to erupt at the back of their throats.  They stood, rooted in place, surveying the stern face of their father; another involuntary intake of breath coming as they watched the man’s countenance turn a deep shade of red, their own faces paling as their father’s continued to darken.  The older man’s eyes were now mere slits.

Scott tipped his head in his brother’s direction.  “Shoot me,” he whispered.  “Please shoot me.”

Johnny swung his gaze to his brother, seriously considering the option.  He was knee deep in shit and sinking, thrust into the sinkhole by his brother and the fucking, spring-loaded container of candy and the phony snake.  And then it hit him. There was only one bullet left in his revolver.  “Fuck you,” he murmured.  He was torn now between shooting the Old Man or simply splattering his own brains across the increasingly unfriendly terrain.

Cipriano had just slipped back into the room, his two sons padding softly behind him.  They were carrying brooms and a small bucket of assorted tools.  “Patrón,” the Segundo murmured.

Murdoch acknowledged his old friend with a single, curt nod.  And then he turned back to his boys.   “Both of you,” he growled.  “My study.  NOW!”

Scott’s chin dipped briefly against his chest and he took a deep breath.  If there was ever a need to implement his usual skill for diplomacy, it seemed to be right now.  “Murdoch,” he began, raising his head to meet his father’s gaze head on.  “Sir…”

Two large strides was all it took for Murdoch Lancer to skirt the couch and come face to face with his sons.  He pulled himself erect, towering over both young men.  “And just what part of the word now do you not comprehend?”  Showing not one mote of fear, he reached out and wrenched his younger boy’s weapon from his hand; using the pistol to point in the direction of the dark hallway.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

There were two rooms in the vast hacienda Johnny Lancer dreaded with a fierce passion: his father’s upstairs bedroom, and the Old Man’s private study.   On those occasions when the head-butting sessions reached almost cataclysmic proportions, his father would physically take him in hand and drag him into whichever room was closest, shut the door; and the ass-chewing would commence. 

Hunkered down in one of the two wing chairs that faced the desk, Johnny cut his eyes to gaze at the Regulator wall clock.  They had been in the room for almost thirty minutes; thirty long, gut-wrenching minutes.  “So why do you think he’s takin’ so long?” he muttered.

Scott was leafing through a book he had randomly picked from the floor-to-ceiling book shelf that was centered between the windows overlooking the enclosed garden.   “He’s assessing the damage, estimating the cost of the repairs, and itemizing the expense,” he announced.  He cast an all-knowing look at his sibling.  “And then he’s going to come in here and tell us -- to the precise penny -- how much we owe, and just how he plans to collect.”

Johnny levered himself up from the chair and began pacing.  He was simmering; a slow anger building, and it was aimed right at his brother.  “Did I tell you thanks for the present, Boston?” he drawled.  God, he wished he had his hat.  No.  A fuckin’ two-by-four would suit his needs better; somethin’ solid to whack his ‘older, wiser’ brother right up aside the head.  His eyes searched the room for a suitable replacement, finally coming to rest on a tasseled cushion; one of a pair Teresa and Maria had insisted on making to brighten up the room’s somber interior.  Snatching the thick pad with both hands, he set about his task; beating his brother to death with goose down.

Scott ducked his head, the book that had been resting on his slim thighs dropping to the floor as he rose up from the chair.  “Johnny!”  He was laughing when he danced away from his sibling, the heel of his boot thudding against tiled hearth.  Losing his balance, he caught himself against the mantle and then gracefully spun away. 

Johnny continued his assault; each swipe with the pillow accompanied by a verbal barrage as he backed his brother across the room.  “Stupid…” thwack … “fuckin’…” thwack … “…cabrón!”  The next blow was aimed right at his brother’s face, and he grinned when he made the score.  He continued the vigorous assault, multiple blows with lightning quick precision.  “Of…all…the…low…down…chicken…shit…”

The blond was backed up against the far window now, one arm raised as he blocked yet another rain of blows from the plump cushion.  He reached back with his right hand to steady himself; feeling the give as his fingers sunk into the second pillow.  With the speed and dexterity of a born athlete, he whipped the cushion from the sill and began an enthusiastic defense.

Surprised at the sudden flurry of retaliatory strikes, Johnny backed up, taking a defensive position and shifting his grip on the cushion.  He swung wide, aiming at his brother’s head; laughing as Scott dodged behind one of the over-stuffed chairs.  There was a whoosh as he reversed the swing, the force of the next blow scattering a stack of papers that had been neatly setting on the corner of Murdoch’s desk. 

Scott’s next blow was aimed low, catching the younger man’s exposed belly and glancing off his right hip.  His brow furrowed as he attempted another swing, realizing too late the fabric covering on the pillow was firmly snagged on one of the conchos that decorated Johnny’s right hip.

Johnny spun away, pummeling his brother hard as he gained the advantage.  Too late, he heard the abrupt sound of shredding fabric, the pillow his brother was still holding stretching and then rupturing at the seam.   It was like watching an over-ripe carcass bursting beneath a too hot sun; the well packed down erupting from the casing and exploding into the open expanse of the room.

Dumbfounded, Scott stared into the near darkness; the soft down dancing on the air like snowflakes, the memories of a snow globe his Grandfather had given him when was a child prompting a smile.  Just as quickly, he sobered.  “This is not good,” he murmured, watching as the plump down fluttered into a mound at his feet.

Johnny dropped his pillow as if it were on fire.  He opened his mouth to speak, gagging when he inhaled a mouthful of feathers.  The next thing he knew, Scott was thumping him hard on his back; between his shoulder blades.  Hacking, he coughed up not only the feathers but a copious amount of phlegm.  He caught the slimy glob against his right fist, grimacing as he surveyed the mess, his gut clenching.

Scott pulled a clean handkerchief from his back pocket and proceeded to wipe, first, his brother’s chin; and then the boy’s hand.  “Are you all right?”  The concern was real.  Johnny’s recovery after the javelina’s attack had been seriously compromised by a bout of pneumonia that had left the youth emaciated and prone to congestion.

Johnny snatched the handkerchief from his brother’s hand and swiped his mouth and nose.  “I’m fine,” he muttered.  He resented Scott’s mother-henning; hated the way it reminded him of when he was flat on his back and totally dependent on people who were still strangers to him.  Christ!  He’d come to once in the middle of Murdoch and Maria givin’ him a fuckin’ sponge bath; wishing himself dead when their tender scrubbing at his nether regions turned his dick into a fuckin’ lodge pole.

He still couldn’t look Maria in the eye.  It didn’t help when she gave him the once-over every damned time she saw him, smiling at him with that all-knowing, Mamácita half-smile, as if she knew all his secrets…

“I hate to interrupt you daydreams,” Scott ventured, tapping his brother’s shoulder, “but have you given any thought to just how we are going to explain this?”  He was pointing at the floor, his finger making a slow circular motion as he gestured towards the mounds of feathers.

There was a subtle movement as Johnny Lancer used his big toe to poke at the pile of fluff.  “So how you figure ‘we’?” he asked.  He was fighting the smile that was playing at the corner of his mouth.  “It was your pillow that busted.”  Turning aside so his brother couldn’t see his face, he used his right foot to push a pile of down towards the underside of his father’s desk.

Scott sniggered.  “My cushion, your conchos,” he pointed out. 

As if checking out his handiwork, Johnny bent forward slightly at the waist.  “That right?” he mocked.  Covertly, his fingers closed around the pillow he had dropped earlier.  He suddenly righted himself, turning to deliver a solid smack with the cushion; catching his brother completely unawares.

Instinctively, Scott backed away.  Defenseless, he bobbed and weaved; skillfully ducking away from the full assault, laughing as he used his hands to ward off the blows.  Johnny was driving him across the room with a flurry of back and forth swipes that were breath-taking in their speed and intensity.  “Damn it, Johnny!” Scott scolded; still laughing as he sidestepped away.  “Stop it!!”

Johnny’s response was another solid thwack, aimed at his brother’s head.  Disappointed he had not scored the planned hit; he drew back; his shoulders bunching as he prepared for yet another assault.  Both fists securely wrapped around the cushion’s base and giving it his all, he swung the pillow sideways.

Murdoch Lancer opened the door and stepped across the threshold, an audible gasp coming as a large cushion slammed into his chin and upper chest; a loud “poof” sounding in an explosion of white fluff.  The air around his head and shoulders eddied, the feathers swirling about his upper torso, clinging to his hair and shoulders.

Panicked, Johnny took several giant steps backwards, his gaze immediately dropping to the now empty pillow slip clutched in his right hand.  In a foolish attempt to get rid of the evidence, he balled the fabric and tossed it behind his back. 

For an all too brief moment, the room was enveloped in a deathly, ominous silence.  The atmosphere changed drastically the moment Murdoch Lancer stepped further into the room and shut -- slammed -- the door.  Mustering all the command he could under the circumstances -- not the easiest thing to do with the considerable amount of feathers still clinging to his face and his clothing -- he regained control. “Sit!” he thundered.

They sat.

Where to begin, the big man thought ruefully.  His lips compressed in a tight line, he strode purposely across the room, positioning himself with his buttocks firmly planted against the edge of his desk; directly in front of his sons.  Arms tightly folded across his midsection, he glared down at both young men, his gaze so intense both boys shifted uncomfortably; Johnny actually scrubbing his fingers through his hair in an attempt to brush away the scrutiny.

“Well?” Murdoch ground out.

Johnny made the mistake of crossing his legs, the movement more than enough to stir the feathers covering the floor at his feet.  He sighed, causing the disturbed down to flutter even more.  “Aw, hell, Old Man,” he breathed.  “You already found us guilty.  May as well just get it over and go ahead with the hangin’.” 

Murdoch’s fingers were clenching and unclenching against his upper arms.  “Don’t tempt me,” he snapped.

Scott had straightened in his chair.  He cleared his throat.  “This is entirely my fault, sir,” he began.  He turned briefly to smile at his sibling before turning back to face his father.  “If I hadn’t indulged in that little practical joke in the Great Room…”

Murdoch’s right hand shot up.  “Stop right there,” he ordered.  Pivoting slightly on the desk, he picked up a cut glass tumbler from the tray next to his elbow.  He frowned, blowing gently into the vessel to dislodge several feathers, and then reached out to retrieve the bottle of Glenlivet.  The muted glug-glug followed as he poured himself a full measure.  He took a long drink from the glass and then resumed speaking.  “I’m quite certain, Scott, you are familiar with the term oxymoron,” he began.

Johnny’s ears perked right up.  While he wasn’t all that sure about the oxy thing, he was very familiar with the moron part.  It was another one of his brother’s favorite words; as in ‘will you please stop behaving like a moron’ or ‘that has got to be the most moronic plan ever conceived by the human mind’.  Hell, Scott had used the word so many times he’d snuck into this very room to look it up in that big fat dictionary the Old Man was so damned proud of; actually relieved the insult didn’t require him to call his brother out.  Scott sure had a way with words.  He had a way with words himself; especially in Spanish, and he tossed them out, too.  Good thing the Old Man didn’t have a Spanish dictionary; although Scott would probably find one somewhere.  Unable to stop himself, Johnny stifled a snicker behind a closed fist.

“Do you find this amusing, John?”  Murdoch speared his younger son with his customary ‘look’; the one where his eyes turned the color of slate.

The younger man knew better than to look up.  He also knew from his father’s tone he needed to mind his tongue.  He shook his head.  “No, sir,” he lied.

Murdoch harrumphed and chose to ignore the quick smile Scott shot in his brother’s direction.  He decided instead to continue the lecture.  “The term practical joke makes about as much sense as using the words ‘obedient sons’,” he grouched.  “I find no practicality at all in pulling some foolish stunt which results in a pistol being fired in this house.”

Scott’s jaws tensed.  His posture was no longer as relaxed as before, and his back was ramrod straight as he came forward in his chair.  “I’ve already conceded the point this entire fiasco in the Great Room was of my making,” he announced. “I’ll personally see to the expense, and the repairs.”

Murdoch finished his drink, upending the glass and nosily placing it back on the silver tray; clearly unhappy with his elder son’s tone.  “I’m holding both of you equally responsible for what happened,” he interrupted, “in the Great Room and here in my study.  You’ll both be seeing to the repairs, and to cleaning up the mess you’ve created.”  He gestured towards the feathers that seemed to be covering everything in the room; frowning when the downdraft from the narrow chimney lifted the scattered white down from the dormant hearth and swept it swirling into the room.

Like a schoolboy, Johnny raised his hand; his fingers wiggling in the air.  He lifted his head. “It was me that shot the fu… damned pistol…”

Once again, the tall Scot abruptly broke in.  Manners be damned, he thought.  “I know full well who fired the pistol, John.  I can even understand your response to…” he cast a disapproving look at his elder son, “…your brother’s ill-advised attempt at humor.”  His gaze swung back to his youngest.  “What I can’t condone is your blatant exhibition of your skills, with no thought at all; the next two bullets you fired at the ship went through the window and into the courtyard.”  The next words came softly but were filled with a father’s sharp disapproval.  “I am well aware of your ability to use a hand gun, Johnny, as is your brother.  You had nothing to prove with some performance better suited to a boy playing at target shooting behind the barn with tin cans and a pocket gun.”

Johnny was scrubbing his thighs with his fists, his posture changing as he slouched further down into the chair.  It wasn’t long before his hands had shifted position and he wrapped himself into the familiar self-hug; his fingers kneading the flesh of his upper arms as he struggled to ground himself.  He was staring straight ahead, anger firing his eyes; his right hand drifting down his flat abdomen to his waist.  There was a subtle move as he surreptitiously removed a single bullet from his gun belt and began rolling the cartridge back and forth between his thumb and forefinger.  “I wasn’t puttin’ on a show,” he hissed, knowing in his heart that was exactly what he had done after he’d plugged the damned phony snake.  He’d had no call at all to take pot shots at the Old Man’s ship, other than he wanted to show his brother just what he could do.  It had worked, too.  He sure had impressed the Hell out of Scott. “And I’m not some fuckin’ kid playin’ at…”

Murdoch was having none of it; the boy’s continued use of the obscenity adding fuel to the fire.  “Your behavior after your brother’s stunt proves otherwise,” he snapped.  “And if you’d done as you were told this morning, we would not be having this conversation.”  Before Johnny could respond, he turned to his elder son.  “You’ll need sacking to collect the down,” he declared, gesturing at the scattered remains of the two ruptured cushions.  “I’ll leave it to you and your brother to explain to Maria and Teresa how you managed to destroy their handiwork.”  He levered himself erect and headed for the door.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

After a quick trip upstairs to retrieve Johnny’s boots, the brothers had made the mutual decision to avoid both Maria and Teresa; deciding it would be more prudent to clean up the feathery debris in Murdoch’s study before confessing to their transgressions.  Dealing with the fit they both knew Teresa would be throwing was a minor concern -- she could be quickly teased into a good mood with a few words of flattery -- but Maria…

Maria was, they knew, an entirely different matter.  She had immediately taken her Patrón’s lost sons into her heart; showering them with all the affection she could no longer give her deceased sons, and both young men truly treasured her unquestioned devotion.  Granted, the woman could be captivated into extra servings and special desserts -- both young men had their own distinct techniques for charming the tender-hearted housekeeper -- but she took her job as their surrogate mother very seriously.  She also did not tolerate their senseless mischief.  

So now, after skulking out of the house like thieves, they were in the storage building beside the stock barn, rooting through the collection of flour sacking that had been stored away from the previous winter.  Unlike the canvas and burlap bags used for corn and oats, the flour sacks came in a variety of solid colors and bright muslin prints.  The cloth was versatile, reusable; and coveted by the estancia’s women, who used the material to fashion everything from diapers to curtains and the camisas y vestidos (shirts and dresses) their children wore.   

The sacking had been laundered, ironed and folded and was now neatly ensconced on a series of shelves in a two-door cabinet.  Elena Delgado, Cipriano’s wife, was in charge of this particular Lancer domain, and halfway into the boys’ foraging she entered the store room to supervise their efforts.  She had already heard from her husband and her hijos (sons) about the mischief the Patrón’s sons had been involved in inside the great hacienda, and she knew they were now doing penance.  “Buenas tardes, muchachos,” (Good afternoon, boys,) she greeted.  She was smoothing her skirt as she stepped across the threshold; a tenuous smile playing on her lips.

Scott immediately turned from his rummaging, nodding at the woman.  “Señora,” he greeted, taking her hand and bowing slightly.

Somewhere in her late forties, Elena Delgado was an attractive woman.  The mother of five grown children, she had retained the lithe figure of her youth; remarkably small-waisted and agile.  She was lighter skinned than her husband, Cipriano; with green eyes that were flecked with amber and high, well-defined cheekbones.  Her dark hair, only now beginning to show a few strands of grey, was pulled into a single thick braid that cascaded down her right shoulder.  She wore it loose when Lancer held their frequent fiestas; and when she danced, her waist-length hair billowed like a silken banner, catching the light.

Johnny moved out of the shadows, his greeting more familiar than his brother’s.  “Buenas tardes, Tía. ¿Cómo estas?”  Bowing slightly at the waist and taking the woman’s hand, he kissed her fingertips.

The woman’s head canted, and she was smiling.  When she withdrew her hand, she caressed his cheek, allowing her fingers to linger before turning the fond gesture into a small slap.  The boy was a charmer, as his mother had been before him; but he did not have the woman’s dark soul.  “You have been playing with your Papí again, haven’t you, niño?” she admonished, well acquainted with the young man’s habit of toying with his father.  Her voice had a huskiness to it; and, as was her manner when speaking, her fingers strayed to the scarf she habitually wore around her neck. 

The boy’s cheeks flushed.  Cipriano, he knew, had told on him.  “Some,” he murmured, ducking his head to avoid the disapproval in her eyes and then recovering.  “Scott, too,” he volunteered as he pointed an accusing finger at his brother, offering the woman a full-out smile, his teeth showing and his eyes bright with devilment.  “The Old Man tore us both a new one.”

Elena frowned at the youth’s use of the term ‘old man’.  Reaching out, her fingers darted to the nape of the boy’s neck as she grasped a hank of the too long hair behind his right ear and gave it a sharp twist.  “Usted hablará de su padre con más respecto, muchacho; ¡o usted no hablará en absoluto!” (You will speak of your father with more respect, boy; or you will not speak at all!)  She shook a finger beneath his nose.  "Usted tiene las tareas; ocúpese de ellos. ¡Ahora!"  (You have chores; attend to them.  Now!)   Turning her back on the youth, she headed for the door. [gl2] 

Scott watched as his brother’s right hand lifted to rub vigorously at the soreness at the side of his head.  “For someone so petite, she certainly knows how to make her point, doesn’t she, brother?” he grinned Johnny was pouting.  “You wouldn’t think it was so fuckin’ funny if it was your hair she grabbed hold of,” he groused.  “No wonder Paco keeps his hair so damned short.”

The blond was going through one of the piles of sacking.  “Do you ever wonder about it?” he asked; withdrawing two matching bags, similar in color to the cushions they had destroyed in Murdoch’s study.  He held them up for Johnny’s approval.  “The scarves the Señora always wears?”

Reaching out, Johnny used his thumb and forefinger to feel the fabric.  He shrugged.  “Paco said she got hurt, a long time ago.”  His brow furrowed.  “Mateo heard us talkin’ and told him to shut up.”

Yet another mystery, Scott thought.  In his time at the ranch, when he had the opportunity, he’d made subtle inquiries about the estancia; about his father and the brother he didn’t know he had.  Like he hadn’t known about Murdoch’s second wife.  “More secrets,” he said softly.

“The Old Man’s secrets,” Johnny muttered.  He was quiet for a long moment.  After Pardee, when he had finally been allowed to be up and about, and still afoot, he had spent a long afternoon wandering the old cemetery located on a hillside not far from the main house.  Most of the graves from the early days were unmarked, but the more recent interments -- those of the past twenty-five years or so -- were properly identified and lovingly maintained.  “They’ve all been here a long time,” he murmured.  “Cip’s family, Maria; even Frank, and they don’t volunteer nothin’.”

Scott nodded.  He gestured towards the doorway.  “So we can assume, through the years, Murdoch has cultivated the loyalty of these people.”  Realizing the coldness of his words, he felt a need to correct himself.  “It would seem, brother,” he continued, his voice softening “our father has done something of merit to be worthy of the affection of Cipriano and all the others who reside on Lancer; who consider Lancer their home.”

Johnny was walking shoulder to shoulder with his brother, a slow smile coming as he realized his long-legged sibling had adjusted his stride so they were marching in cadence.  “Maria calls it -- them -- ‘la familia’; the family.”  He looked across the courtyard to the front door of the hacienda; his steps faltering as he spied the cook standing at the threshold.  “Sure hope she’s thinkin’ family now, brother,” he sighed.

Scott followed his brother’s gaze.  Maria’s posture indicated she was on full alert, and he could see little puffs of dust rising at the hem of her skirt as her right toe tapped against the tiled deck.  Her arms were crossed, and she was holding a large wooden spoon.  “She’s thinking feathers,” he murmured, “and which one of us she’s going to smack first with that spoon.”

Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he came to a dead halt.  “We could go back to the barn,” he whispered.  “Saddle up and just get the Hell out of here ‘til it all blows over.”

The blond laughed, heartily.  Somehow, the idea of running away from home with his younger brother was actually appealing; something he was certain they would have done as children after similar mischief.  “It is not going to ‘blow over’, little brother.”  He risked a look a Maria.  “Not on her watch.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny raked his fingers through his hair, dislodging yet another clump of goose down from the tangle of dark curls at his collar.  “So, they teach you anything at that fancy school about why, when you try stuffin’ a hand full of feathers into a sack, twice as many come flyin’ out?”

A soft swish-swish sounded as Scott used a short broom to brush a carefully arranged pile of feathers towards the small metal dust pan Maria had thrust into his hand when he and his brother had been marched into the kitchen.  Both young men had been very careful to stand with their compact rear ends as close to the wall as possible; and they had actually backed out of the room before retreating down the hallway.  The memory prompted an exuberant chuckle from the blond, who had just bent down to scoop up the cloud of fluff.

Annoyed his brother hadn’t answered his question, Johnny put his foot down in the middle of the mound of feathers Scott had so meticulously gathered; scattering them across the carpet.  “Asked you a question, Boston; and I’m still waitin’.  I mean, you bein’ the one always tellin’ me about how it ain’t mannerly to put someone off when they’re tryin’ to make polite conversation and all.” He leaned forward, smirking.  “Or did I finally toss you a question you can’t handle?” 

Scott’s eyes narrowed, something ominous behind the pale blue orbs that prompted his brother to immediately back up.  “Oh, I have an answer for you, Johnny,” he smiled, the words coming softly, “but it’s not one I think you’re going to like.”  He snaked out a long arm, catching his brother behind the knees and dumping him on his butt.

Johnny scrambled to his feet, his temper flaring.  “You wanna try that again, pendejo (asshole)?”

Smiling, Scott shook his head.  “What I need to do, brother, is clean up this chaos we’ve managed to create; before Murdoch or Maria decides to come in here and check on our progress.”  The smile grew.  “How about instead of giving you a lesson in physics,” he enticed, “I teach you a new word?  One you can toss out to Murdoch when the appropriate occasion arises?”  His eyes were dancing.  Johnny was a quick study; lacking in formal education, but certainly not intelligence.

The offer immediately cooled the younger man’s temper.  There was nothing he loved more than playing head games with his father.  Truth be told, the little skirmishes where he even temporarily prevailed were a hell of lot more satisfying than the rafter raising shouting matches; and Scott was always willing -- eager -- to provide him with such opportunities.  Sometimes it was a thought provoking quotation from the classics; more often an unusual word Johnny would immediately grasp and store away for an opportune time.  “We talkin’ a high dollar word here, brother, or just some fancy word I can say in front of Teresa without Murdoch climbin’ all over my ass?” 

Scott had resumed sweeping up the feathers.  “Actually, it’s a word you can use the next time Teresa barges into your room without knocking; and you have to explain to Murdoch why our little miss ‘just think of me as a sister’ is running down the hallway screaming with a pair of your unwashed long johns tangled in her hair.”

Johnny’s mouth quirked up in an impish grin.  That little fandango had been worth the ass chewing Murdoch had delivered; although he was still pissed over how Maria had refused to give him dessert that night at supper.  The part about Teresa not talkin’ to him for a full week was pure gravy.  He grabbed the dust pan and started a collection of feathers for his own sack.  “So what’s the word?”

Rising up to his full height, Scott knotted the top of his now full bag of down.   “Imbroglio,” he answered.  “It means a confused or complicated disagreement.”

Johnny’s grin blossomed into a full-blown, wide-toothed smile.  “Good one, brother!”  He wet his lips and repeated the word, imbroglio; momentarily closing his eyes as he locked the word and meaning away in his head“Hell.  Me and Murdoch are always havin’ us one of them ‘confused or complicated’ disagreements.”

Scott was surveying the room, looking into the far corners to make sure all the feathers had been collected; sighing when he spotted a few strays.  “Check Murdoch’s desk, and behind his chair,” he instructed.  “I’ll check this side of the room.”

Carrying his sack, Johnny moved to his father’s desk.  He picked up a single feather from the drink tray, and then moved around the piece of furniture to check the floor. 

The right hand lower desk drawer was open just a hair, and Johnny spied a bit of fluff hung up on the frame.  Bending forward, he slipped open the drawer, softly cursing when the feather disappeared into the deep interior.  He reached in, probing the darkness; playing finger tag with the piece of down.  The feather seemed to elude him, but it soon didn’t matter.

His hand closed around something more familiar.  Grinning, he pulled his pistol from the drawer’s depth.  He slipped the Colt into his holster.  The stray piece of down was stuck to the grip, and he plucked it away from the piece of walnut and deposited it in his bag.  When Scott turned to face him, he was knotting the soft muslin.  “Got ‘em.”

Scott nodded his approval, the smile that had started at the corners of his mouth quickly turning into a frown.  He nodded at his brother’s right hip.  “If memory serves, Johnny, I seem to recall Murdoch taking your pistol when he caught us in the Great Room.”

Nonchalant, Johnny shrugged.  “Yeah.  He must’ a put it in here when we were gettin’ the sacking.”  Already, he was working with the piece; the same way he did every time he strapped it on.  It had to feel right; like it was a natural part of his body, an extension of his hand, his fingers.

Scott watched with macabre fascination as his younger brother concentrated on the weapon, torn between admiration and the devastating knowledge that the same pistol which had kept his brother alive had also caused him a life of pain; and had scarred his very soul.  Johnny -- in spite of his ‘I always sleep well’ -- had frequent nightmares.  The boy’s night terrors were a constant reminder of his torment -- those times, Scott knew, when his brother had been plunged into a Hell not of his own making, into that dark place where death beckoned with fickle promises of comfort and release.

Not for the first time, Scott felt a deep, intense hatred for a woman he knew only through his brother’s feverish late night rantings.   The young man drew in a deep breath.  “Put it back, Johnny,” he implored.  “Please.”

Johnny was already shaking his head no.  “That’s like askin’ me to walk out the front door in nothin’ but my birthday suit, Scott.  You know that.”

Scott chose his next words very carefully.  While he understood completely what his brother was saying, he also knew the issue of Johnny wearing the pistol in the house was a constant bone of contention.  “I’m not asking you to walk out the door naked, Johnny.  I’m just asking you to consider a compromise.”  He waited, and then spoke up a second time.  “You aren’t going to win this one, brother,” he sighed.  “Not after what happened in the Great Room.”

Johnny’s right palm was resting on the butt of the pistol, his fore and middle finger tapping lightly against the leather holster.  “It was your fuckin’ snake,” he declared petulantly.

“I’ve already shouldered the blame for that particular little indiscretion, Johnny; and Murdoch concurred I was at fault.”  He scowled, his expression mirroring his brother’s.  “What our father takes issue with are the two shots you made afterwards.”  His voice deepened.  “His ship?”

Phhht…”   Johnny’s right shoulder lifted in a slight shrug that signaled his total lack of concern.  The big ship Murdoch was so proud of -- like the smaller model Clippers that sat gathering dust atop the bookcase in the Great Room -- probably didn’t even float.  “Besides, you’re the one that said them shots were ‘incredible’.”  A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Scott inhaled, deeply.  Attention, God, he mused, about that ridiculous prayer I kept repeating when I was a child, asking for a baby brother?  He nodded.  “And do you also recall that part when I said it was insane?”  The pause was intentional.  “Our… father’s…ship?”  Then, realizing his sibling had just accomplished yet another diversionary tactic; a talent at which he excelled, he continued:  “Put the pistol back.”

This time, Johnny laughed.  “Last time you said ‘please’,” he drawled.  The machismo that was so much a part of the youth’s persona was in full bloom.  “You forget to say the please, it sounds a whole hell of a lot like an order.”  His fingers were ticking against his conchos.  “And you know how I feel about orders, Boston.”  He was almost whispering now.  “And the fuckin’ rules.”

So intense was the verbal sparring between the brothers, neither one of them heard the soft click as the tumblers within the well-oiled latch on the oak door turned.  For a big man, Murdoch Lancer could move quietly; and there was just a mere whisper atop the carpet as his booted feet crossed the threshold.  He had heard the exchange between his boys and was aware of the growing dissension.  When he spoke, he addressed his elder son.  “Scott.”  Both young men turned to face him.  “I have something I need to discuss with your brother.”  He extended his arm, opening the door wider, and nodded towards the hallway.

Scott’s gaze flicked from his father’s face to his younger brother’s.  “Compromise,” he murmured; just the single word.  Disappointed at what he saw in his sibling’s stoic expression, he shook his head; mentally cursing his brother’s pig-headed stubbornness.   Reaching out, he picked up the sack of feathers Johnny had deposited on the desk, and then retrieved his own.  “I’ll take these to Maria,” he announced.  He felt as if he were about to leap from the frying pan directly into the fire; a feeling that was reinforced when he saw his younger brother’s sly grin.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch watched his younger son; the silence that hung between them as thick and as foreboding as the heavy mists that shrouded the Scottish moors during the long, bitter winters of his youth.  The grey of that landscape -- along with the depressing realization his complex mixed heritage gave him little hope for the future he desired in the conflicted land of his birth -- had driven him to leave Scotland and seek his fortune across the sea.

A wry smile touched the older man’s lips.  On the sea, he mused, correcting himself.  He’d done well; in ten years becoming master and co-owner of three Baltimore clippers that traversed the United State’s eastern coast and the waters well beyond the Gulf of Mexico.   He had retained one of those ships after his first marriage; to bring his bride around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) to their new home and a new life at Lancer.

A soft rustling of turning pages drew the man from his ponderings, his attention drawn to the place where Johnny was now standing.  There were two pedestaled bookstands in the room, near the windows: the one containing the Webster’s Dictionary, the second one holding the large Harper’s Illuminated Bible; a recent gift from Aggie Conway.  Surprisingly, it was the Bible that seemed to have caught his younger son’s fancy.  A smile played on the older man’s lips; quickly replaced by a scowl when he saw Johnny was wearing the pistol.  “I don’t recall, John, giving you permission to pilfer my desk drawers.”

Johnny’s fingers had been making slow circles against the right hand page of the Bible.  Psalms, he mused, glancing at the marked page.  The Bible was always open to the Book of Psalms, although the number of the Psalm wasn’t always the same.  Today, it was Psalm 121 the ribbon marked: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’

Well, he’d sure in Hell been looking up to the hills that day in Mexico, when the Pinkerton came barrelin’ over the ridge…

“John.”  Murdoch watched as his son’s head came up, his breath almost taken away by the expression on the youth’s face.  “Did you find something of interest there?” he asked, nodding towards the book.

Johnny’s hand dropped away from the tissue thin paper.  “Do you read it?” he asked.

Murdoch nodded his head, his expression benign.  “Every day,” he replied honestly.  He paused a long moment, and then continued.  “There was a time, after --” the hesitation came again as he considered his next words carefully; his tone softening, “-[gl3] - after Catherine died, and again when your mother left, I stopped.”  He was moving across the room now to join his son.  Reaching out, his fingers caressed the gilt-edged pages.  “Then I realized I was giving up; and I couldn’t do that.  Not on Scott and not on you.”

Johnny’s expression was still thoughtful.  “Lost your faith?”

There was a soft chuffing sound as the older man let out a breath.  “More like my faith lost me,” he sighed.  And then, “That was very clever, John.”

The youth turned his head, his brow furrowing.  ‘More like my faith lost me.’  It annoyed the Hell out of him, the things his father sometimes said and never explained.  He chose a neutral response he hoped would evoke an answer to his question.  “What?”

Murdoch reached out, tapping the butt of Johnny’s .45 with his forefinger.  “The shifting of our conversation away from how you liberated your pistol from my desk drawer; to a discussion of my faith.”  His tone was reflective.  “Your brother is quite impressed with your skill in creating ingenious distractions…”

“That ain’t all he’s impressed with,” Johnny snickered, remembering Scott’s words after the final shots in the Great Room.  He regretted the words as soon as they tumbled out.  If ever there was a time for a diversion, it was right now.  “We about to have us a little imbroglio, Pa,” he drawled, “one of them complicated disagreements?”

A flicker of bemused surprise registered briefly upon Murdoch’s craggy countenance.  He knew about Scott’s propensity for throwing new words out at Johnny.  It had caused him some concern at first until he realized it was a form of play; although it sometimes became intense if the young men were quarreling.  As for the ‘Pa’…  “No, son,” he breathed.  “What we’re going to have is an end to the subterfuge…” let the boy stew about that one for awhile, he thought, “…while we continue the discussion we were having this morning at breakfast.”

Johnny’s posture changed as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the still- healing wound in his left leg reminding him he wasn’t fully mended.  “That wasn’t no discussion, Old Man,” he grumbled.  “That was you bellowin’ orders at me.”  He raised his head, risking a look at his father’s face. 

Murdoch’s right eyebrow lifted, his jaws tensing; then relaxing.  He had lost his temper; something that rarely occurred under ordinary circumstances because he prided himself on his ability to control his emotions.  But Johnny and -- on rarer occasions -- Scott were both equally adept at lighting that particular fire.  “I apologize for ‘bellowing’, son,” he said, smiling inwardly as he saw the look of surprise that Johnny was unable to conceal, “however, I will not apologize for reminding you there are rules I expect you to abide by; and one of those is that you will not carry your weapon when you are in this house.”

Johnny’s lower lip was trembling, a belligerent frown forming as he listened to his father’s declaration.  His right hand had drifted to the butt of his revolver.  “Everyone on Lancer carries,” he declared, the words coming in a mere whisper; but with a definite edge.

The older man nodded.  “When they are out and about,” he conceded, “or away from the main house.  And the majority of them carry rifles as opposed to side arms.”

That stung, and it showed in the youth’s face.  “Yeah.  Well, I ain’t ‘the majority’ now, am I?”  He sucked in a deep breath.  “And I sure in fu…hell haven’t been ‘out and about’; not with the way you and Sam been keepin’ me on a short tether.”

Murdoch’s jaws tensed.  “You wouldn’t be on a short tether if you had listened to Sam’s orders,” he gestured towards the younger man’s left leg, “and had simply obeyed the rules I …”

Johnny’s flat hand smacked solidly against the open Bible; with enough force the pedestaled stand shuddered.  “Rules!” The whisper gave way to a near shout as his temper flared.  “Jesus Christ, Old Man!  You got more fuckin’ rules than God...” frustrated, he slammed his fist against the Book a second time.  The instinct to bolt overwhelmed him, and he attempted to break away, heading towards the door.

Murdoch immediately stepped in front of his son; as formidable a barrier as a great stone wall.  Reaching around his son’s shoulder, he tapped the Bible with a rigid forefinger.  “Between Exodus and Deuteronomy, John, there are over six hundred God-given rules -- commandments.  My list is considerably shorter, but that could certainly change.”   He inhaled, taking a calming breath before continuing.  A tiny smile quirked up the corner of his mouth when he saw the doubt marring his son’s features.  “Six hundred thirteen,” he proclaimed.  Inspired, he leaned in towards his boy.  “Perhaps you’d like to count them, son.  Take some time at my desk; make a handwritten list, just to be sure.”

There was an awkward silence as Johnny considered his father’s proposal.  Threat.  ‘Cause that’s sure what it sounded like.  Thing was, he knew if he pushed, there was a good chance his ass would be planted in a chair for a long, long time; just like the time the Old Man had put him on the books.  Not that he was about to surrender.  No way in hell was that happening.  “Told you before what I think about rules and orders, Old Man,” he shrugged; the bravado returning along with the soft drawl.  “Never paid that much attention to God’s, and I sure in hell don’t care that much for yours.”  He smiled.

Patience, Murdoch reminded himself, stubborn in his resolve not to let the boy get under his skin.  “Well, you’re going to learn to care, John.  The rule stands,” he stated emphatically.  “You will not wear your pistol in the house, and most certainly not at the table.”  End of discussion.

Or not.

Johnny’s fingers were tapping against his holster.  “I could just move into the barn; take my meals in the bunkhouse with the crew,” he declared stubbornly. 

Murdoch’s response was instant, and straight to the point.  “And I could accompany you to the barn, and you could be taking those meals standing up,” he snapped, his tone much the same as his son’s.  He reached out, laying a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “You will not defy me on this, John; not anymore.”

Johnny’s first instinct was to pull away.  He felt his father’s grip increase, the man’s fingers tightening as he held on.  It was enough to bring the youth’s head up and for him to gaze fully into his father’s eyes.  This was a different man than the one he had confronted that first day when he had arrived at the hacienda.  It had been easier to read the Old Man’s face then, that sudden flush of jaw tightening anger that had come in response to his insolence.

But, somehow, that had all changedOh, he could still set the Old Man off with a well placed dig, or a smart remark; but  reactions lately were not always so quick as before.  Like now.  How did you strike a match to tinder, stoke a fire, when the wood was no longer shriveled or dry?

Murdoch’s hand was out, expectant.  He was very careful to not raise his voice.  “Give me the pistol, John; and the holster.  Now.”

He didn’t know why he finally gave in, but he did.  Maybe it was the Old Man’s tone, the intense determination in his father’s eyes; or just -- in the end -- he knew, this time, the Old Man meant business.  That didn’t stop the sulk.  Unable to meet his father’s fierce scrutiny, he unbuckled the gun belt, carefully winding the thick strap around the leather sheath and thrusting it to his father’s hand.  He felt naked; totally naked.  “We done here?” he mumbled.

Murdoch strode across the room to his desk; laying the gun belt at a spot in the corner just above the large blotter.  “For now.  We -- you, your brother, and I -- will be discussing the cost of the repairs in the Great Room this evening, after dinner.”  He pulled out his chair and sat down, opening the long drawer at the desk’s center and rummaging the contents.

Not knowing what else to do with his hands, Johnny shoved his fingers into his waist band, his thumbs caressing the twin silver buckles that secured his belt.  His gaze was focused on the gun belt, the sour taste of bile coming at the back of his throat as the panic began to claw at his gut.  No matter how often Scott tried to reassure him -- to tell him that the hacienda was their home, their sanctuary -- the doubts still remained.  The pistol had been his only security from the time he was twelve years old; it was unnatural to be without it.  I can’t do this, he thought, swallowing hard.  There’s no fuckin’ way I can do this.

Chewing on his lower lip, he debated his next move.  “Look, Murdoch,” he began; treading the unfamiliar waters of verbal negotiation, of apology.  Shooting someone was a Hell of a lot easier.  “About what happened here, and when me and Scott was in the Great Room,” he murmured.  “I’m sorry.”  God, he’d actually said the words and hadn’t choked on them.

It appeared Murdoch had found what he was seeking.  He was gazing at a small leather bound journal he was holding in his right hand.  “Not as sorry as you’re going to be when you see your next pay envelope,” he muttered.  He reconsidered.  “Your next several pay envelopes.  The repairs on the clock alone are going to far outweigh any of the other damages.”

The clock, Johnny mused.  He hated that fucking clock, ticking away minutes and seconds of his life in rigid quarter-hour segments, tracking his coming and going; a constant reminder of his habitual tardiness and the way his life had changed.  If the fucking dings weren’t bad enough, the tolling of the hours were pure agony.  “You could just get rid of it,” he suggested, grinning a bit in the hope a measure of humor in his voice would soften his father’s resolve.  “Cut down on the noise; give a man some peace when he’s tryin’ to sleep.”

Murdoch laid the journal aside without opening it.  “I happen to enjoy the sound, John; the constancy.  That clock is a part of Lancer, and has been since before you were born.”  Reaching again into one of the desk drawers, he withdrew a piece of stationery and picked up his pen.  “It was part of your mother’s dowry.”

A look of shock and sudden disbelief washed across Johnny’s countenance as he heard his father’s last words; his mouth opening as the question formed and died unspoken.  The only sound now was the steady scratch of Murdoch’s pen against paper.  He stood for time, staring hard at the top of his father’s bent head, silently willing his Old Man to look at him, to speak to him, to even notice he was still there; knowing it wasn’t going to happen.  As usual, he had been well and truly dismissed.  Wordlessly, he slipped across the threshold, shutting the door behind him, and headed down the hall towards the Great Room.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Sighing, Murdoch paused in his writing, mentally berating himself for the words that had spilled, unthinkingly, from his mouth.  Leaning back in his chair, he stared at the closed door.  He should have called Johnny back into the room; should have responded to his son’s quiet surveillance as soon as he felt the heat of his boy’s eyes enveloping him.   And yet he had not.

It’s past’; he had told his sons that first day, forcefully slamming the door on any discussion of what had gone before.  Scott had reacted with only a slight narrowing of his pale eyes, the cool reserve that was so much a part of his being betraying nothing, not one mote of emotion showing in his face.

Johnny had been another matter.  For a too brief moment, the boy’s face -- his eyes -- registered an unfathomable yearning; a deep sorrow: as if some long forgotten memory had seized his heart and squeezed the life’s blood from his very soul.  And then, just as quickly, it had all changed.  The confident façade of the pistolero returned; the young man becoming cold, sarcastic.


It was, Murdoch knew, the insolence, the quick show of temper and -- yes, the arrogance -- that had fueled his own anger.  The fact the boy looked so much like his mother made matters even worse, and the words were spoken before he could stop them:  and you have you mother’s temper.  It had sounded like an accusation; and he had instantly regretted the outburst.  But he had spoken the truth.   Johnny’s rage was the same as Maria’s: the boy’s mercurial temper as explosive and as potentially dangerous.  The youth had also inherited his mother’s talent for baiting; for using words to taunt and inflict pain.

Maria had been a remarkably beautiful woman, the green-eyed daughter of an Andalusian aristocrat who had been granted a royal patent in the New World in the early 1700’s.  Everything about her bespoke her breeding.  From the way she carried herself, to the lyrical Castilian Spanish she spoke; and definitely in her aloof manner when she was dealing with the tradesmen and the peons she encountered in the streets.

It was on the streets of Matamoras where he had first seen her.  Knowing the customs of the country -- the Old World traditions -- he had found himself taken aback that, as a woman of quality, she was in the company of two men instead of a dueña. 

She was also the one in control.

He’d made discreet inquiries about her later that same afternoon, finding out she was the object of much speculation; a woman of means and mystery who intrigued not only the citizens of Matamoras, but the norteamericanos from Brownsville across the Rio Bravo.  She danced, he had learned, in the grand salas de baile (ballrooms) that catered to the gentry.

And so he had gone to see her perform.

It was, he thought lamentably, a whirlwind courtship; contrary to anything he had experienced in his otherwise structured and orderly life.  Perhaps it had been the circumstances, the need to purge himself of the deep despair that had gripped him after the disaster that had occurred in Boston where he’d gone thinking he would reclaim his son.  Whatever the reason, he had been totally captivated by the woman; and, yes, seduced by her boundless passion.

It did not matter that she was not a virgin; that she had told him -- boasted -- of her lovers.

Absently, Murdoch’s long fingers tapped against the smooth top of his desk.  It wasn’t until after they had been together that she told him how she came to be in Matamoras; that she had fled her father and an arranged marriage.  At twenty-three, she had declared her independence; her intention to control her own fate, tradition be damned. 

He had insisted they contact her father.  His own pain over Scott’s absence from his life would not allow him to marry a woman and take her to a world far away from her family without them knowing.  In the end, she had agreed with his thinking. 

Belatedly, after they had gone to her family’s estancia, he realized she had consented to the trip not to resolve any problems, but to create even more acrimony.  The vitriolic quarrel with her father ended with the triumphant declaration she would marry the gringo.

And then she announced she was with child.  The news had stunned her father.  Murdoch, knowing it was a possibility, was equally surprised.  The wedding was quick, private; and their departure immediate, although not without ceremony.  To save face, Maria’s family had fabricated a story, woven of partial truths, of an alliance with a great ranch in California.  Murdoch had agreed to contribute to the family coffers.  In exchange, Maria was allowed her dowry: furniture and trappings inherited from her mother, along with an entourage of servants.  

Drawing in a deep breath, the tall Scot scrubbed his face with both hands.  Through it all, he had never truly regretted marrying Maria, no matter the cost.  What grieved him was the sadness in knowing -- all too soon -- they had become living proof of the old proverb, ‘marry in haste, repent in leisure’.  Where, he wondered; had it gone so wrong?

The decanter of Glenlivet seemed to beckon him, and he poured himself a generous measure, lingering over the drink.  They had been happy at first; incredibly happy, and then -- as Maria’s body changed -- so did her disposition.  It did not improve after Johnny’s birth.   

Realizing the growing darkness in the room was doing nothing but adding to his somber mood; Murdoch picked up the brass matchbox from the desk.  He lifted the delicate glass globe from the small lamp and adjusted the wick, using his thumb nail to light the sulfur tipped stick, coaxing the flame.  The muted light was enough to push the shadows deeper into the room; the pale glow radiating out across the desk top.

The gun belt and pistol were illuminated as well.  Unable to stop himself, Murdoch reached out.  This was not the legacy he had planned for his son.  His jaws tensed as he carefully unwound the leather belt and laid it flat across the desk top.

If Johnny wasn’t always fastidious about his own appearance or his clothing, he was certainly diligent in his care regarding the Colt and its rigging.  The holster was more of a nest for the weapon, the leather carefully soaped; the stitching in excellent condition, the rawhide tie-down supple and of precise, even length.  Only the cartridge belt contained some small anomaly; a minor deviation to the precise order of everything else.

Murdoch had noticed the irregularity almost immediately when he had first seen his son.  The belt was designed to hold an even number of bullets; but there was always one gap, one empty loop, the second one just to the right of the buckle.  He had wondered about that; a bullet in the first loop, none in the second, the others in a long, carefully aligned row.  Just as he had wondered about Johnny’s habit of removing that very first cartridge, toying with that specific bullet, in much the same way he had done this very afternoon.  Johnny worked the bullet like other men would play with a worry stone.  Not that it had seemed to bring the boy any comfort. 

Gingerly, Murdoch lifted the belt away from the surface of the desk.  Using his thumb and forefinger, he eased the single brass cartridge from the belt; resting it in the palm of his hand.  At once, he realized the bullet was a hand-load; the weight greater than the usual for the caliber and different, he knew, from the other cartridges.  The lead tip was peculiar as well; softer, pliant enough he was able to crease the tip with his fingernail.

The brass shell casing was polished to a bright sheen; no doubt from the constant rubbing -- the caressing -- of Johnny’s thumb and forefinger.  Positioning his hand so his fingers were more fully illuminated by the soft glow of the lantern, he rotated the cartridge; pausing when he spied what he thought was an imperfection.

He reached into the top desk drawer, pulling out the wire-rimmed glasses he occasionally used when reading; adjusting them on the tip of his nose.  Then, leaning in closer to the lamp, he examined the brass casing, rotating the cartridge toward the light.

And then he saw it.  The lettering was precise, exact; the obvious work of a skilled engraver.  There was a single word etched into the brass:  LANCER.

An audible gasp escaped the man as he realized what he was holding in his partially clenched fist; what this bullet represented, what it had been designed and loaded to accomplish.  Calming himself, he debated what he was going to do next: to return the bullet to its original place, or to keep it.  He opted for the latter, dropping the cartridge into his shirt pocket. 

Absently, the fingers of his right hand tapped against the small notebook he had taken from the desk drawer.  Something -- he didn’t know what -- prompted him to pick up the journal; memories flooding back as he opened the cover.  Catherine had given him the leather bound diary; the first night they had spent together in the hacienda.  A wistful smile touched his lips as he opened the small book.  The inscription -- a quote from one of Catherine’s favorite poets, Martin Fraquhar Tupper -- had faded: but not the memory of the joy he had experienced when he had read the words:  A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men…" and then the words, We are going to have a son.

Catherine had been so sure and certain they would have a boy.  She had blossomed in that belief, had marveled at the changes in her body; sharing the wonder with her husband and welcoming his tender and hesitant touch.  As the child grew within her, she would take her husband’s hand, placing his flat palm against her stomach; rejoicing when there was movement, certain in the knowledge the child was aware of their caresses.   

So different from Maria, Murdoch mused.  Not for the first time, he wondered what his life would have been had Catherine survived, and there had been more children and the opportunity to love and to nurture them.

He sighed, deeply; the bittersweet speculation stirring his soul as he considered the what might have been, and was then swept with an incredible feeling of guilt.  If Catherine had lived, there would have been no Johnny.  His finger traced the inscription as he reread the words aloud, the deep baritone resonating into the quiet.  “‘A babe in the house is a well-spring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men…’”  There had been times recently -- rare times -- when Johnny truly had been a ‘well-spring of pleasure’; when the Madrid persona had slipped and given way to the bright-eyed image of the joyous toddler who had filled the great hacienda with hope and the dreams of a future. 

A deep frown touched the man’s lips as his left hand drifted to his shirt pocket and he felt the weight of the cartridge against his chest, just above his heart.  “Damn you, Maria,” he swore.  “Damn you to hell for what you did to our son.”  Whatever love, whatever foolish hopes he had clung to after her disappearance, was instantly cast from his heart. 

~*~ *~ *~*~*~*~*~

Standing with his hands clasped behind his back, his thumbs twirling, Johnny stood before the massive clock, his eyes exploring each ornate whorl of the finely lathed dark wood, as if seeing it for the first time.  The huge timepiece had haunted him, right from the beginning; from that very first night after the fire when the house was finally quiet and everyone had gone to bed.  He’d lain for a long time in the dark, listening to sounds somehow familiar, slipping into an uneasy peace as his breathing calmed and his heart began to beat in harmony with the muted tick-tock. 

It wasn’t until later, when he was recuperating from his wounds that the clock became a major source of contention.  Everything in the hacienda, everything connected to the great estancia, seemed to be measured by the ticking and the chiming of the damned thing.  Murdoch certainly lived by the clock, and it was clear he intended his sons to do the same.  Breakfast at six; sharp.  Lunch, noon; sharp.  Dinner, six; sharp.  Sam will be here to see you at two sharp.  It didn’t take long to convince Johnny there was no greater sin than failing to arrive at whatever sharp it happened to be.

He reached out, his fingers coming to rest on the clock face.  Dowry, he thought.  ‘It was part of your mother’s dowry’.  His brow furrowed.  Dowries were for rich people, the families of the Dons and las Doñas, the titled gentry who ruled the land and the people; not for women who danced in cheap cantinas, who whored their bodies…

“Thinking of taking up a new trade?”  Scott stepped down into the Great Room, a bemused smile on his face as he watched his brother’s hand drop to his side; as if the boy had just withdrawn his fingers from an open flame.

Johnny’s cheeks flamed a deep red, his shoulders tensing as he pulled himself erect.  Scott had a quiet way of moving; like a great long cat on the prowl, and he had gotten far too good at catching him unawares.  “Thinkin’ maybe I should kick the shit outta someone just for fun,” he carped. 

Scott raised his right hand; displaying a small wooden tool box.  “I’m going to make some temporary repairs, brother.  You can either help, or you can take your foul temper elsewhere.  Your choice.”  It was clear from the man’s tone he was in no mood for any boyish petulance.  He crossed the room, heading directly for the clock. 

“He said it was part of her dowry,” Johnny announced suddenly.  “Mama’s.”

The words, the way Johnny said them -- as if he was asking a question or seeking affirmation -- stopped Scott dead in his tracks.  He quickly regained his composure, opening the tool kit and removing a small pair of pliers before slipping the case into his back pants pocket.  “Murdoch,” he said, gently straightening the ornate hour hand.  His next move was to adjust the small pike that secured all three hands -- hour, minute and second -- in place atop the rotating gear.  “Murdoch told you this…” he nodded towards the Grandfather clock, “…was part of your mother’s dowry?”

Johnny’s face clouded.  “Yeah, Scott.  My mother’s.”   His right hand balled into a fist as -- not for the first time -- he felt a surge of resentment stab at his soul.  In his head, he knew Scott didn’t deserve the rancor he was directing towards him right now.  Fuck.  Neither one of them had picked their Mamas; anymore than they had picked their Old Man. 

“I was just asking a question, Johnny,” Scott said, the words coming softly; his attention still focused on the timepiece.  “It’s not as though you and Murdoch have chosen to sit down and discuss your mother, or much else for that matter.”  He chose the next words very carefully, keeping his tone neutral.  “Did you ask him, brother?”

The younger man’s head was bowed, his chin resting against his chest.  “He just said it, Scott.  And then he shut up, like he always does.  Talkin’ to him is like talkin’ to a fuckin’ brick wall…”

Briefly, Scott closed his eyes.  Reticence, it appeared, was apparently a shared family trait; especially when it came to his brother and father.  He shook the thought away, knowing that now was not the time for a brotherly lecture, no matter how well intended.   His adjustments to the timepiece made, he slipped the pliers into his shirt pocket.  “Let’s take a better look at the clock, Johnny.”  When he saw the pout forming, he tried again.  “There may be a trade mark,” he reasoned.  “Some indication of where the clock was crafted; where it came from.”  He laid a gentle hand on each of his brother’s shoulders, turning him slightly.  “Inside the case,” he suggested.

Johnny shrugged.  The right-hand corner of his mouth twitched.  If nothing else, in the short span of years he had existed, he had learned one hard truth: life was nothin’ but a fuckin’ crap shoot no matter how you played it, and the odds always favored the house.  “After you,” he offered, bowing slightly.  “With my luck, I touch that fuckin’ thing; something else will bust and set the Old Man off.”

Scott chuckled.  “Which, of course, will be my fault,” he observed sagely.  “You do know that being your older, wiser brother can sometimes be a true pain in the posterior.”  Gingerly, he reached around his sibling’s shoulder, bending forward to open the lower door to the clock’s casement.

“Yeah, well you ought’a try bein’ me,” Johnny sighed.  He moved in for a closer look.

The blond’s long fingers were exploring the interior of the clock’s cabinet.  He dropped down into a crouch, his firm buttocks resting on the heels of his boots.  “Here,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the case.  Surprisingly, he also found dust and rodent droppings.

Johnny assumed a position similar to his brother’s.  He reached out, poking at the dried mouse manure and grinning devilishly.  “Jeez, brother.  Wait’ll I show this to Maria.”  He snickered.  “And T’resa’s ‘sposed to do the dustin’ in here.”

Recognizing a stall when he saw one, Scott thumped his brother’s head with a cocked forefinger.  Then, peering into the clock’s interior he continued his close examination.  A fragile piece of parchment glued to the floor of the clock’s base was no longer legible, curling at the edges, a brittle corner flaking away at the young man’s probing. 

Sweeping away a layer of debris, Scott saw the unmistakable gleam of metal.  Using the tips of his fingers, he scrubbed at the oval-shaped plaque.  It was, he knew, gold.  “Johnny,” he breathed, tapping the medallion with his finger.  “Look at this.”

Johnny edged in closer to his brother.  His brow furrowed as he concentrated on the object beneath Scott’s finger.  “What the hell is it?”

Scott took a tenuous breath.  “It’s a heraldic crest.”   The emblem, he knew, was no clockmaker’s mark.

Both young men were silent; each lost in their own thoughts.  Johnny was especially contemplative, the tip of his tongue swiping across his upper lip.

The coat of arms was impressive in its near starkness.  An ebony black, enameled shield was nested atop the gold medallion, two rearing, forward facing bas-relief lions appearing to support the escutcheon.  Slashing across the shield’s face, a diagonal band of gold divided the crest into two distinct parts; the upper portion embellished with a blooming rose, the opposite, bottom triangle emblazoned with the kneeling figure of a bull, the hilt of a sword protruding from between the animal’s shoulders.

Scott brushed at the crest a final time, exposing the black enamel ribbon at its base; his eyes narrowing as he studied the minute inscription; feeling the warmth of Johnny’s breath across his cheek as his brother whispered the words in Spanish:  “En Muerte Valiente, Vida Eterna.”  Turning his head, Scott met his sibling’s gaze and said the words aloud: “In valiant death, life eternal,” he translated.

Johnny’s frown deepened.  “You can read Mexican[o4] ?” he asked.  There was a definite edge in his voice.

Scott nodded his head.  “We all have our secrets, brother.  Mine is the six months I spent with my tutor touring the Continent when I was fifteen.  He was fluent in French, Italian and Spanish.”  He inhaled.  “He taught me well.”  The lightening fast sucker punch knocked him on his rear.  “Johnny,” he cautioned.

“You bastard,” Johnny spat, feigning annoyance; thinking of all the times he had cut loose in front of his brother, had bantered with the vaqueros about his sibling’s fancy ways.  “You sneaky bastard!”

“That would be cabrón engañosa,” Scott grinned.  He reached out, patting his brother’s cheek; his mood becoming more serious.  “You need to talk to Murdoch,” he said.  “You need to ask him about this…” the next part was difficult, “…about your mother and the crest…” he hesitated, seeing the frown. 

Johnny shrugged.  He levered himself up, extending his hand to his brother and pulling him to his feet.  “Told you before.  Talkin’ to the Old Man…”

‘Is like talkin’ to a fuckin’ brick wall,’” Scott finished, the frustration evident in his tone.  He decided on a different tact; although it wasn’t one the one he preferred.  “There are ways to find out about the crest, Johnny; its origins; without speaking to Murdoch.”

The brunet smiled.  “Let me guess,” he ventured.  “They got a book somewhere…”

Annoyed, Scott reached out, his right hand cupping his brother’s neck and giving it a squeeze.  “Yes, John, there is a book.  Several books, in fact.  It’s just a matter of finding the right one and researching the coat of arms.  We can already assume its origins are Spanish based on the inscription -- the family motto -- which will cut down the time required to make the search. We can find out the name…”

“I don’t give a damn about the name,” Johnny interrupted sharply.  It was a bad lie, poorly told.  He wanted a name all right.  Almost as much as he wanted answers to the growing shit-pile of questions that had lurked in the back of his mind for more years than he cared to remember; those gut-niggling tugs that were always resurrected in his nightmares.  Faceless phantoms that haunted him; features hidden by veils and shadows, but always there, tearing at his heart.  It was the same with the memories; those brilliant,  brain and eye-numbing flashes of things and places…   “I don’t give a damn about the name,” he repeated, the words coming in a harsh whisper.  His countenance had taken on the deceptive, cold calm he always displayed when Johnny Madrid came calling.  “Let it go, Scott,” he murmured; his voice lowering.  “Just let it go.”

Scott had turned his attention back to the timepiece.  Pulling out his pocket watch to check the time, he reset the clock; using a single finger to adjust first the hour hand, and then the minute hand.  When the two timepieces were finally synched to his satisfaction, he reached into the belly of the clock, pulling the pendulum free of its bracing and prompting the mechanism into its slow back and forth sway; the steady tick-tock resuming and seeming to fill the room.  “I’m not going to let it go, Johnny,” he said, the determination evident in his face as well as his voice.  He turned to face his brother fully; his right hand coming to rest on his sibling’s left shoulder.  “I don’t think Murdoch intentionally meant to open this particular can of worms, but he did; and now it’s his responsibility to make it right.

“It’s your birthright, your heritage, and you have a right to know, brother,” he declared.  “All of it.  About the family crest, about what he said regarding this being part of your mother’s dowry.  You have a right to ask those questions, and to have them answered.”

Johnny remained silent.  He was staring straight ahead, his gaze fastened on a spot somewhere on the wall behind his brother; but giving the impression he was returning the other man’s stern surveillance.  “I said to let it go,” he said finally, his voice hard as he attempted to pull away from his brother.

Scott’s grip tightened.  When Johnny raised his hand to peel his fingers away, he dug in even deeper.   “I am not going to let it go, brother,” he declared, the words resonating.  “Either you talk to Murdoch, or I will.”

This time, Johnny did break free.  Both hands pressed hard against his brother’s chest, he shoved Scott away.  “Fuck you!” he shouted.  He kept pushing, only to know the frustration of his brother’s stubborn resistance; Scott’s hands grasping his wrists like iron bands as he was shoved hard against the Grandfather clock.  An ominous dong sounded.  As humiliating as it was to be held in place; it was even more difficult to avoid his brother’s continued sharp scrutiny.

Instinctively, he reverted to the type of warfare that had served him so well all of his young life.  He allowed himself to be pulled even closer to his brother’s chest and then fired his first salvo.  “You got questions for the Old Man, Scott.  Why don’t you ask him how come he left you in Boston?” he jibed.  “Maybe even ask him why it took him more’n twenty years to send for you?”  He laughed; the bitterness in his tone caustic.  “You think those Pinkerton reports he’s got are just about me and my Mama?  Hell, he knew where you were; probably knew every time your nodriza (nanny) wiped your fuckin’ ass, but he still…”

Scott was smiling; but there was no warmth in the expression.  “Admirable, little brother,” he interrupted.  “As usual, a masterful counter attack intended to divert attention from the primary target.”  He continued to hold on to his brother’s wrists.  “I know all I need to know about the past, little brother,” he whispered.  “I know who my mother was, where she came from, where I came from.”  The next words came even more softly, deliberately; and with great emotion.  “I know that when my mother left me it was not of her own accord, Johnny; that she did not choose to leave me behind…”

Johnny broke free; a great adrenalin surge coming, fueled by an anger that was rooted in betrayal.  He had the sick feeling in his gut Scott was not guessing; that somehow during the long fevered days and nights when he was ill that he had failed to keep the demons of his childhood at bay, and his brother had heard and heeded his tortured rantings.  “You son-of-a-bitch!” he roared, swinging his right fist hard and connecting with the side of his brother’s head.  “You mother fucking son-of-a-bitch!!”

The blow to his head had not been expected.  Scott’s instincts, however, prevailed and Johnny’s fist just skimmed against his left temple.  He had expected Johnny to lose his temper; knew that his younger brother would use anger to divert unwanted intrusions into a guarded life still full of secrets.   Too many secrets.  Ignoring his brother’s wild swings, Scott pulled his sibling close, wrapping both arms around Johnny’s upper torso in a tight hug as he shoved him against the clock.  “Calm down, brother,” he murmured, his lips barely moving as he whispered into the youth’s ear.  His voice lowered even more; the familiar tone of command evident.  “Calm…down.”

Johnny’s eyes closed, his jaws tensing as he willed a composure he neither felt nor wanted; the need to strike out at something -- anything -- still strong.  He could feel the blood pumping; heard the whooshing sound in his ears that always came when he lost control, which was in perfect tempo to the beating -- throbbing -- of his heart.  Heat radiated from his body, and he felt the sweat crawling across the back of his neck, beading behind his ears.  He wrenched free, and struck out again; only to know the frustration of hitting nothing but empty air as Scott dodged the blow.

“That’s enough!”  Once again, with his uncanny and impeccable timing, Murdoch Lancer stepped across the threshold and strode into the room to tower above his sons.   Grabbing both young men by their collars, he yanked them apart; continuing to hold on with enough force they both instinctively gasped for air. 

Murdoch’s voice rumbled up from deep within his chest, but he was not shouting.  It would, perhaps, been better if he had.  Instead, the words came whisper soft with a deadly calm.  “I don’t know what the Hell is going on between the two of you today, but I do know this.  It is going to stop, now.”  Like a male alpha wolf chastising his cubs, he gave them both a fierce shake; tempted for a moment to knock their heads together to make his point.  “Is that understood?”  His grip relaxed, but only slightly.

Surprisingly, Johnny was the first one to respond.   Swallowing, his head dipped a single time.  “Understood.”  But it was Scott he was looking at, not his father.

Scott remained silent until Murdoch’s hand dropped from his collar.  Smoothing his shirt, he faced his father fully; his blue eyes the color of slate.  “We need to talk,” he clipped.  “About this clock,” he gestured with his head, “and about your wife’s dowry.”

Stunned, Murdoch backed up a full pace.  He recovered quickly, just as Teresa appeared at the arched doorway.

“Murdoch, Maria was wondering…”  Teresa hesitated just as she was about to step down into the Great Room; withdrawing her foot as she sensed the tension.

“Not now!” Murdoch snapped.  Then, his face softening and his tone changing, he addressed the girl again.  “Your brothers and I need some privacy, Teresa.  Please shut the doors.”

Obediently, but with great trepidation, Teresa retreated back into the hallway.  She closed the doors; a hollow thud coming that echoed throughout the great hacienda.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch was seated behind his desk, a tumbler of whisky in his right hand.  Changing his mind about the drink, he sat the glass down; leaning back as he glared at his elder son.  Scott was about to ease his long frame into his usual chair when the older man spoke.  “I don’t believe I gave you permission to sit down,” he growled.

Immediately, the blond pulled himself erect.  “I didn’t realize I needed a dispensation to sit down in my own home,” he responded sharply.  “However, if you prefer I stand…”  His back was ram-rod straight now; his posture exactly the same as it had been that first morning when he had uttered the abrupt ‘Will I?’ at his father’s ‘You’ll do as you’re told!”

Murdoch’s frown deepened.  “I prefer you speak to me with the common courtesy a young man of breeding uses when addressing his elders,” he snapped.  He cut his eyes to his younger son, who looked as if he was about to bolt.  “And you stay right where you are.”

Johnny’s head snapped up, his jaws tightening; the sapphire eyes alive with a myriad of emotion, not the least of which was raw anger.  He swung his gaze from his father to his brother as he focused his rage on his sibling.  “Told you to let it go,” he snarled; his hands fisted against his thighs.

“And I told you if you didn’t talk to Murdoch, I would,” Scott flung back.  He turned back to face his father.  “You need to explain the remark you made regarding Johnny’s mother, about that clock being a part of her dowry.”  He made no effort to hide his growing contempt.  “It’s time to put an end to the secrets, Murdoch.  Here and now.”  He hesitated, his voice lowering.  “We found the coat of arms.”  The simple declaration sound like an accusation.

Suddenly, Murdoch came forward in his chair, the deep scowl intensifying as he addressed his elder son; his face ashen and his voice deceptively soft.  “I would suggest, Scott, you think very carefully before you proceed with this conversation.  You are dangerously close to trespassing into matters that are no concern of yours, and certainly none of your business.”

Scott laughed, softly; but there was no humor in the sound.  Abruptly, he leaned forward, both hands slamming hard atop his father’s desk; the sound as harsh as the report of a repeating rifle.  He was almost nose to nose with the older man now, his face mirroring his father’s; their expression the same, pale eyes challenging pale eyes.  “Don’t you dare tell me that something concerning Johnny is none of my business,” he declared vehemently; the harsh whisper cutting into the silence.  “He’s my brother.  We share a common blood; blood that was spilled to hold this land!

“For God’s sake, Murdoch!  At least I knew who my mother was; where she came from, and -- through her -- where I belonged!”  His breathing was ragged now, his temper rising.  “Scott…Garrett…Lancer,” he seethed.  He brought his face even closer to his father’s.  “Are you trying to tell me Johnny does not have the right to know as much as I know?” The sarcastic laughter came again, and he corrected himself; “the little I know, which at least includes my mother’s name?”

Murdoch shoved back his chair and immediately stood up; putting himself again in the position where he loomed over his eldest.  He had never observed this degree of intense anger in his elder son.  In truth, he had never seen Johnny even close to this kind of rage.

For a moment, it appeared Murdoch was actually contemplating striking his son; that he was struggling to keep his hands locked firmly around the edge of the desk.  “I’m not going to tell you again, Scott,” he intoned, the warning in his voice clear.  “The matter is not open to discussion.”

Scott straightened, but did not back away from the desk.  He stood, militarily erect, his jaws flexing as he worked the thing over in his mind; immediately deciding he was not going to let the matter drop, no matter the harsh ultimatum.  “I can…” his eyes narrowed, “I will find out about the crest; about the lineage the coat of arms represents.”  He threw out the challenge without any hesitation.  “‘En Muerte Valiente, Vida Eterna’,” the words came in perfectly enunciated Spanish, Scott’s tone pure steel.

Johnny watched as Murdoch’s face assumed the harsh mask of irate parent; an expression he had seen more times than he cared to remember, but one that was usually cast in his direction.  His gut clenched; the fingers of his right hand flexing against his empty thigh.  He’d seen Scott angry before, but never like this.  Scott was still in control, but he was teetering on the very edge of something dark and -- Johnny knew -- dangerous.  “Let it go,” he murmured; repeating the words louder when neither man acknowledged his pleading.  “Just fucking let it go!”

Scott’s gaze never wavered from his sire’s face.  “I will not,” he declared, adamant.  “A name, Murdoch,” he demanded.  “Here and now, or I’ll leave and find out for myself.”  His voice lowered, but the defiance was still there.  “And I will take my brother with me.”  The final words came with a steely self confidence that left no doubt he meant exactly what he was saying.

Holy fuckin’ shit, Johnny thought; waiting for the explosion he knew was coming.  Funny thing was, as mad as he was at his brother, the thought of Scott leaving Lancer was like a kick in the gut.

Murdoch’s first instinct was to respond in kind to his elder son’s blatant hostility.  Then a flicker of something -- a new awareness -- touched his face, his eyes.  He inhaled, deeply.  “Her name was Maria-Josepha Orñate de León.  She was the youngest child and only daughter of Don Joaquín Emilio Orñate de León, and his wife, Catalina.”  Then, his voice deepening, “Sit down; both of you.”  The tune-caller was back in control.

Johnny wilted into his chair; relieved to be off his feet, and not just because of his sore leg.  His mind was reeling.  The daughter of a Don, he thought; mystified that such a thing could be true.  Memories of his mother -- the multitude of personalities he recalled from his childhood -- flooded from the closets in his head where he had hidden them.  His Mama had been different; her complexion much lighter than the mestizo women who populated the small villages they always seemed to find; each one seedier than the last.  More desolate.  And there had always been an aloofness to her; a contempt, almost, for other women of her acquaintance.  Not that any of them had been friends.  No.  His Mama’s friends had never been other women…

Scott had taken his seat as well, but his posture was the same as it had been while he was standing.  He was still on the prod, on high alert.   “Matamoros,” he said, just the one word.

Dios, Johnny thought.  Scott was like a great cat, relentless in stalking its prey.

Murdoch’s chest heaved.  “She was running away,” he intoned, a grim smile coming as he realized the irony in the words.  “From her father; from an arranged marriage to a man she had never met.  We -- I -- fell in love.”

Johnny snorted.  In fuckin’ lust, he fumed, remembering his father’s near confession that first morning; the not-so-subtle hint his mother was already pregnant when the wedding took place.

Murdoch’s gaze swung to his younger son.  “Tit for tat, John,” he said.  “What happened to your mother?”

The question clearly caught the younger man off guard.  He shrugged, slumping down even farther in the chair.  “Dead,” he said.

“How?” Murdoch shot back.

It was clear from Johnny’s expression he had no intention of answering the question.  Scott’s countenance softened as he canted his head and attempted to catch his brother’s eye.  It wasn’t happening.  If anything, Johnny was withdrawing further into the dark terrain where no one else was allowed to venture; the place where he isolated himself within the persona he had created as a youth.  It was Madrid Scott was seeing now.

“How?”  Murdoch repeated, as stubborn as his elder son in his determination to get some answers.

Scott turned back to his father.  “I’m the one who initiated this conversation, Murdoch…”

Murdoch’s face flamed a bright red.  “Inquisition,” he interrupted; his tone severe.  He turned back to his youngest.  “I want to know what happened to your mother, John.”

Johnny’s right fist was rubbing hard at his right thigh; his mind working overtime.  “Seems I recall you tellin’ me not too long ago I needed to learn the difference between want and need, Old Man.  Sounds like you got the same problem.”  He raised his head, the cold smile evident.  “You got a need to know.  I don’t want to talk about it.”

 Scott had finally leaned back in this chair, but there was nothing relaxed in his posture or his demeanor.  While he didn’t like where the conversation was going, he wasn’t about to let up.  It was a beginning, at least, albeit a tenuous one, and he wasn’t about to let it get any further out of hand.  “I suggest a compromise,” he began, raising his right hand to stall any interruptions.  “An agreement there is some reasonable restrictions on what you are willing to discuss.”

There was a harsh scraping sound as Johnny abruptly shoved back his chair and started to rise.  “I’m done,” he announced, both hands still on the arms of the chair as he hovered above the leather seat.

“Well, I’m not!” Murdoch bellowed.  He was very close to losing the small bit of parental patience that still remained in what was rapidly becoming a meager supply.  “Sit down,” he ordered.  Johnny immediately dropped back into the chair.    

For a time, it seemed as if the only sound of was the intake of air; harsh breathing that clearly indicated the level of tension that had engulfed the room.  In the background, the great clock continued its measured ticking; the sway of the pendulum becoming almost hypnotic as the steady tick-tock, tick-tock worked its strange magic.

Murdoch was the first to surrender to the clock’s power.  Scott watched as his father’s expression became less thunderous and the grim frown eased.  What surprised him was what he was seeing in the older man’s eyes; a mixture of resignation and, perhaps, relief.  As if Murdoch was experiencing an epiphany; a comprehension of the reality he was at last facing.  “Sir, Johnny answered your first question,” he said, keeping his words soft and his tone neutral.  “His mother is dead.  If this is, as you put it, ‘tit for tat’, then its Johnny’s turn.”

Good one, brother, Johnny thought, shifting again in his chair; his interest piqued.  Hell, I can play this game.  Go for the gut, he reminded himself.  “Why’d you kick her out?”

Scott turned to face his sibling; the surprise registering briefly on his face before fading completely away.  He had assumed, after Teresa’s declarations at the river, Johnny had accepted the story his mother had left with another man; in fact, that the younger man wasn’t all that surprised.  However, it was something that had never again been discussed or even mentioned.   His gaze shifted from his brother to his father.

Murdoch had changed his mind about the drink he had neglected.  Reaching out, he lifted the glass to his lips and took a long drink.  “I didn’t kick her out,” he replied, making a conscious effort to keep the rancor out of his voice.  Then, staring at a place somewhere far beyond where his sons were sitting, he began, the words coming softly; his voice whisky hoarse.  “It was Christmas Eve,” he breathed.  “Paul, Cipriano and I had just returned from Morro Coyo where we’d gone for supplies.  When we got back to the ranch…” he was debating his next words, seeing no point in describing the carnage they had found, “…you and your mother were gone.”  The next was more difficult.  “It wasn’t until later I found out she had been seeing someone, that she had been seeing him for quite some time.”  God.  Even after all this time, he felt like such a fool.  He reached up, scrubbing his right hand across his face, his thumb and forefinger massaging his eyes briefly before he dropped the hand back down to his side.

Johnny’s expression was much the same as it had been that morning at the stream when Teresa had spoken to him.  His jaws had tightened, his eyes narrowing until they became mere slits; a look that aged him considerably and etched his features with unspeakable pain.  He blew out a short breath, as if he were expelling the dark thoughts and the bitter taste of a truth he had finally accepted.  “He got a name?” he asked.  “The man she took off with?”

Murdoch drained the last of his drink.  “The name doesn’t matter,” he muttered.  “He’s dead; he’s been dead a very long time.”   He lifted the empty glass he was still clutching in mock salute.  “Your turn.  Perhaps you’d care to tell me why, when the Pinkerton’s found you in Mexicali two years ago, you agreed to come back to Lancer with them, and then failed to do as you promised.”

Scott failed to hide the surprise.  He came forward in his chair, his knuckles white as he grasped the arms.  “Mexicali?” he echoed.  He knew where the town was; that it lay just below the border west of Tijuana.

Murdoch was the one who answered the single word question; but not before refilling his glass and pouring a second drink for his eldest and shoving the glass across the desk.  “It was one of the first solid leads -- verified leads -- Pinkerton was able to track down; to establish a connection between a certain blue-eyed pistolero…”

Johnny snickered.  “Shit,” he cursed, cutting in.  “Mama could smell a Pink upwind and a mile away, and it got so I could, too,” he laughed, no real mirth in the sound.  The Old Man had offered a thousand dollars for an hour of his time on that occasion as well; and he had been stupid enough to send the money with the dicks.  He’d had himself a pretty damned good time on the Old Man’s dime.  When he felt his brother’s eyes on him, he shifted in his chair, his right leg beginning to dance.

“Answer the question,” Scott ordered.  He was a hair short of losing his temper; of getting up and throttling his brother until he had dragged every bit of the truth out of the younger man; regardless of the depth of the pile of bullshit.

“John.”  This from Murdoch, who was enjoying the feeling he had turned the table on both young men.

“Hell, Old Man, I bought ‘em dinner; had me a fine old time listenin’ to their fairy tales,” Johnny smirked.  He was still smiling when he said the next words.  “Then I told ‘em to shove it all up their ass, and go look for someone who might give a shit about their Daddy tryin’ to find ‘em.”  The grin widened when he saw both his father and brother visibly tense.  What he didn’t tell them was he had gotten both men roaring drunk, taken their money and horses, and left them afoot in a place where everyone pretended they spoke no English.

Scott’s deep baritone ripped into the ensuing silence, sarcasm adding an edge to the words as he spoke them.  “It would seem, sir, you should have availed yourself of the services of the Ruales instead of the Pinkertons; since they succeeded in actually holding on to Johnny.”  He smiled, but it was more of a grimace, and it failed to reach his eyes.  “Of course, we do owe the Pinkertons for their perseverance, considering the final outcome.”

It had not escaped Murdoch’s notice that Johnny had managed nicely in not answering the original question.  Frustrated -- growing tired of the game -- he dug into his shirt pocket and withdrew the cartridge he had placed there earlier.  He laid the bullet on the desk, using his fore and index fingers to shove it across the dark wood before allowing it to rest at the very edge of the desk in front of his youngest.  “You chose not to answer the question about Mexicali, John.  Perhaps you’d like to tell me about this,” he leaned forward, tapping the brass cylinder just one time.

Johnny’s eyes widened in instant recognition.  He bolted upright from the chair, reaching out with his right hand to grab the cartridge, only to feel his father’s fingers close, vice-like, around his wrist.  Murdoch, too, had risen from his seat.  He was leaning across the desk now, still holding on to his son’s arm, and increasing the pressure.

The pain was bearable, but not the sudden tingling that radiated from the youth’s wrist up his forearm to stab deeply into the nerve bundles at his elbow.  The sensation was strong enough Johnny could no longer keep his fingers curled around the bullet.  Struggling against the growing numbness in his hand, he resolutely tried to pull free from Murdoch’s grasp, only to know the embarrassment of failure as his father continued to hold on.

“We’re done here,” Murdoch declared; paraphrasing his son’s oft heard I’m done here, the words rumbling up from deep within his broad chest.  He loosened his grip on Johnny’s wrist, but did not let go; not just yet.

Once again, Johnny tried to break free.  It was more than a contest of physical strength now, it was a battle of pure will; one Murdoch Lancer was determined not to lose.  It took a little time, but in the end, the boy gave in.  His entire body seemed to uncoil, like the center spring of an old watch that had been wound too tight and sought release.

Murdoch released his hold, knowing his son’s first instinct was to flee.  “You will not leave the house,” he declared.

Scott watched as his brother headed for the doors; wincing as the right hand half of the heavy oak panel slammed open.  He canted his head, listening; surprised when he heard Johnny’s boots thudding up the stairs.  A second slam came then, followed by another; the sound resonating throughout the house.  Johnny, he knew, had opened and shut his bedroom door twice; the youth’s usual response when his temper got the best of him.  Grimacing, he tossed back the shot of whisky his father had poured, his eyes watering as the potent scotch burned its way down his gullet to assault his empty stomach.  “What the Hell just happened?”

Reaching out, Murdoch picked up the cartridge that still lay on the corner of the desk; juggling it against his palm before thrusting it at his elder son.  “One more unanswered question,” the older man ground out.

Levering up from his seat, Scott plucked the bullet from his father’s hand.  He stood for a time, silent; slowly rotating the brass cartridge.  “Lancer,” he breathed, seeing the inscription.  His brow furrowed as he realized the significance of what he was holding between his fingers; thinking of the times he had seen Johnny toying with the bullet.  Remembering the circumstances.  “I never knew,” he murmured.  “Not about this.”

Murdoch had turned slightly and was gazing out the arched window behind his desk; watching the long shadows cast by the setting sun.  “I’ve seen him toy with it before,” he said, his voice filled with something akin to sadness.  He shrugged.  “His hands are never still…”

It was true.  Johnny’s fingers were always busy, even those times when he was desperately ill and unconscious.  If he wasn’t plucking at the threads on his quilt, toying with the medallion he wore around his neck, he was probing his wounds or searching for his pistol.  The movement was even more constant when he was awake and aware; his restless fingers drifting across the furniture, drumming across tables, whispering across whatever thing that happened to be in his path as he cat-padded about a room.  And when he was sitting -- when he was made to sit down and be still -- it was his spurs, or the bit of scuffed leather on his boots, or the silver conchos on the sides of his pants.

Scott suddenly found himself wanting another drink.  He picked up the decanter from his father’s desk, working the stopper free; and then poured two measures of Glenlivet.  “Murdoch,” he said, offering his father the glass. 

The tall Scot turned to face his first born, wariness in his eyes until he spied the tumbler.  He had also noticed the change in his son’s tone; the fact Scott had resumed calling him by his first name, not the cold and formal ‘sir’.  But he was still not fully relaxed.  Taking a long drink, he stood for a time, his jaws tensing.   Logic dictated his next words.  “And now that your brother has gone off to sulk, I assume the next item on your agenda is of a more personal nature.  The questions you have regarding why you remained in Boston, and I failed to bring you home.”

Clearly taken aback by his father’s directness, Scott found himself in a potentially precarious position.  He did have questions; a great many questions.  There was a subtle sound as he inhaled; the noise a bit louder as he purposely expelled the same breath and slowly regained control of his emotions.  “Yes,” he murmured.  “But those questions are not going to be asked now.”  He raised his head to meet his father’s gaze head on.  “In my own time, Murdoch, and at a place of my choosing.”  His voice raised slightly, the determination clear.  “And Grandfather will be present.”  If he had learned anything from the debacle that had occurred when Julie had accompanied Harlan Garrett to Lancer, he had learned this: the only honest answers he was going to get were when he had both men in the same room, answering the same questions.

“And what makes you think I’ll ever allow Harlan to visit Lancer again?” Murdoch growled.

Scott’s head dipped, a slight smile touching his lips.  “I didn’t say it would be here at Lancer,” he answered.  He raised his head, watching his father’s face intently as he continued.  “Grandfather has purchased a home in San Francisco,” he announced.  “With the expansion of the railroads and the availability of coast-to-coast telegraphy; he’s decided to open an office here in California.”

Murdoch’s only response was a wry smile.  He wondered how surprised his son would be if he were to tell him that Harlan Garrett and he had once been partners in the flourishing hide trade between the ranchers in New Spain and the Boston merchants who prized the leather and paid top dollar.  Or that it had been his ships which had traversed the treacherous waters around the tip of South America and back to the safe harbors of Boston.

And that he had met and courted Catherine Garrett under her father’s watchful eye; and with the man’s full approval.

“Did you hear what I said, sir?” Scott asked, cutting into his father’s reveries. 

Murdoch nodded his head.  He finished his drink, and placed the glass upside down on the drink tray at his elbow.  “I’ve never questioned Harlan’s business acumen, Scott, or his ability to grow his empire,” he answered.  

Scott was clearly surprised by the total lack of animosity in his father’s tone.  And then he realized, for the first time, that his father and Grandfather had something more in common than a male heir of shared blood.  Both men were astute business men who invested their time and money in much the same fashion: to build a legacy meant to endure beyond their allotted number of years.  It was a sobering thought.  “Murdoch, about what just occurred here …”

“Apology accepted,” Murdoch said, a smile quirking the corners of his mouth as he recalled yet another moment from their first tense encounter.  He saw at once the sudden hint of color that touched Scott’s high cheekbones and the smile broadened.

“Point taken,” Scott returned, saluting his father with his empty glass.  Like his father, he was smiling.  “Thank you.”

Murdoch was busying himself arranging that already tidy stack of papers that lay atop his desk.  “For what?”

“For answering the question about Johnny’s mother.”  He paused. 

The hesitation prompted Murdoch to speak.  It was as if he had read the younger man’s thoughts.  “She didn’t go back to her father,” he said.  “I have no idea why she didn’t…” there was a rustling noise as he straightened the edge of the papers against the desk.  “Maria was accustomed to having money at her disposal, to being surrounded by what money could buy.  What she took from me -- from Lancer -- wouldn’t have lasted very long.”  He gave only a passing thought to the jewelry she had also taken with her; everything, including the emerald necklace he had intended as a Christmas gift.

“But you investigated that possibility?” Scott asked, immediately sorry for voicing the question aloud.

Murdoch inhaled; sharply.  “For the first eighteen months after they disappeared, I spent more time in Mexico then I spent here at the ranch,” he said, his tone grim.  “Cipriano and I scoured every trail, followed every lead; but always heading towards de León’s estancia in Nuevo León.  There was no trace of Maria, of Johnny, anywhere.  Her father denied ever seeing or hearing from her.”  There was a finality to the words; a clear indication he was finished with this particular discussion.   “Come with me,” he said, moving away from the desk and heading for the doorway leading to his study.  He paused just long enough to pick up the cartridge that had remained laying on the corner of the desk; dropping the bullet into his shirt pocket.

Scott recognized the tone of command in his father’s voice and -- for a heartbeat -- debated arguing.   Reconsidering, he simply followed in the big man’s wake.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The locked cabinet in Murdoch’s private study had garnered only mild curiosity from his sons.  Both Scott and Johnny had simply assumed Murdoch -- who kept meticulous records -- had simply catalogued all his documents and stored them away for safekeeping.  Murdoch, of course, had the only key.

He was using it now; assaulting the lock like a man on a mission.  When the tumblers finally yielded, he swung open the double doors.  “Every report,” he said, gesturing towards the heavily stacked shelves.  “From Pinkerton, the other agencies.  From my attorneys in Boston…”  He reached out, fingering the topmost sheaf of papers.  “Every day of my life, Scott; for the past twenty-five years is recorded in these files.  The search, the attempts to regain custody.  The investments I made to finance everything that had to be done, and to sustain Lancer.

“For you, Scott, and your brother.  Not for me; for you and Johnny.”

A great wave of emotion swept through Scott Lancer, the affect so profound he felt himself physically sway from the impact.  He had experienced this feeling only one other time in his life; the day the doors at Libby finally opened and he stepped into the bright, clean light of freedom. 

Expectant, Murdoch waited, one hand still clinging to the right hand door to the large chest.  He was surprised when his son shook his head.

“We’ve managed to reach some accord; a degree of compromise,” Scott murmured, “to make a new beginning.”  Moving forward, he used both hands to swing the doors shut.  “We’ll build from there, Murdoch.  Together; as a family.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny didn’t bother to get up from the bed when he heard the knock.  His brother, he knew, would wait what he considered an appropriate amount of time, and then -- invited or not -- just barge in.  So much for Boston manners, he mused.

“Napping?” Scott grinned, stepping across the threshold.  Johnny was on his back, his hands firmly locked behind his head.  As usual when he was on the receiving end of Murdoch’s wrath, he was sulking.  Scott ignored the frown and made his way over to the bed, nudging his brother’s feet aside.  He sat down.

Using one foot, Johnny made a feeble attempt to shove his brother off the bed.  “So, you and the Old Man have yourselves a nice little talk?”  He didn’t bother to hide the acrimony.

Scott nodded.  “Actually, we did.”  He turned slightly, studying his brother’s face before continuing.  “He built this…” he gestured with his hand towards the window; the vast landscape beyond the window, “…for us, you know.  For the children he had; the ones he planned on having.”

Johnny had rolled over onto his side.  He lay quiet for a time and then scooted into a sitting position; swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and grabbing his pillow.  He toyed with the cushion, punching it into shape before settling it across his lap to pull at the threads on the casing.  “You ever think about it, Scott?”  The words came whisper soft.  “Of gettin’ married and havin’ a bunch of kids?”

The question surprised the older man, but he did a good job of hiding it.  “Yes,” he answered truthfully.  “But not any time soon.”  A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.  “I’ve been a little busy helping to raise you.  It appears to be a full time job.”

Johnny guffawed.  “Fuck you!” he snorted, fighting the smile.  He bunched the pillow in his right fist and swung it at his brother’s head.

Scott ducked the blow; gingerly grabbing the pillow and hanging on.  “Whoa,” he cautioned. “That’s what started this entire fiasco, remember?”  He hung on to the cushion until he felt his brother’s grip relax.     

Johnny tossed the pillow behind his head.  “You get any more answers?”  He was picking at the threads on the quilt now, untying the decorative yarn knots centered in the squares.

“More than I thought I would and with nowhere near the bellowing I expected.”  Scott reached out, placing a hand on his brother’s knee and squeezing a bit.  “You had a right to know her name, brother; to know where she came from, who she was.”

The tugging at the knots was more intense now.  “So she came from money,” he shrugged.  “Well, I never saw any of it, Scott.  Not once in all the shit-hole towns she drug me in and out of, not one fuckin’ peso I didn’t scrape up off the floor…”

Scott grimaced at the rancor; the anger evident in the younger man’s words, his posture.  He decided to change the subject, keeping his tone light.  “About Mexicali,” he began, elbowing his brother in the ribs.  “I feel there’s more of a story there than the one you told our father.”

The memory provoked a genuine smile, Johnny’s tongue appearing at the corner of his mouth; then disappearing behind the smirk.  “There was two of ‘em.  A friend told me they were lookin’ for me, workin’ their way through the cantinas.  Had ‘em a folder this…” he measured with his thumb and forefinger, “…thick, and wallets full of cash.”  His eyes were filled with something more than mirth.  “Said the Old Man was willin’ to pay a thousand dollars for a hour of my time…”

Scott’s eyes narrowed.  “Wait a minute.  Are you telling me you received two,” he held up his right hand, his fore and index fingers forming a ‘V’, “two thousand dollars in listening money as opposed to my one?”

Johnny smile was in full bloom, his teeth showing.  “That’s right, brother,” he crowed.  “The thousand the Old Man sent with ‘em, another five hundred from the Pinks; two horses and a silver watch.  Pawned the watch.”  The blue eyes were dancing.  “Traded it, actually.”

The blond snorted in mock disgust.  “And would it be too forward to ask for what?”

Johnny’s smile faded, but just briefly.  “You saw the slug?” he asked.  “He show it to you?” 

Scott nodded.  “That little piece of work with Lancer engraved on the side?”  There was a measure of censure in his voice; his words.

“Hell, Scott.”  Johnny dipped his head.  “Didn’t know then, about Mama.  That he hadn’t kicked her out.”

The regret in Johnny’s voice, the whispered sorrow, was enough to ease the older man’s concern.  That and the brutal mental image of his seventeen-year-old brother -- his very angry seventeen-year-old brother -- living the desolate life of a hired gun; wandering from village to village and heading down a road leading to a place in the dirt in front of a firing squad, and the grim potential for an unmarked grave.  Scott shook the thought away and suddenly stood up.  “Teresa caught me just as I was coming up the stairs.  She reminded me we’ve already been in enough trouble today without being late for dinner.”  He skewered his sibling with a sharp look.  “She hasn’t quite forgiven us for the cushions from Murdoch’s study, you know.”

A deep sigh was forthcoming from the younger man.  “Great,” he muttered.  “Between her, the Old Man and Maria, the food’ll go sour ‘fore I get a chance to shit it out.”

Scott laughed.  “There’s cake,” he coaxed.  “Chocolate.”

Johnny levered himself up off the bed and sauntered the few feet to join his brother at the threshold.  He caught Scott’s arm just as the older man opened the door.  “Do you think Murdoch killed him; the man he said Mama ran off with?”

Scott gave the question some serious consideration.  He shook his head, not in denial; knowing full well his father could, and would, kill if he thought it necessary.  “I don’t know, Johnny.  We’re both aware Murdoch will fight to protect what he considers his own, and he’s certainly shown his willingness to defend others.”  He inhaled.  “Another question we’ll need to ask at another time.”

Johnny didn’t miss the we.  It felt good hearing the word; just like it felt right.  His eyebrows lifted slightly as it occurred to him there was something in this brother thing that might not be all that bad.  He risked a small smile.  “It ain’t over, is it?”

Again, Scott considered the question before he answered.  “Probably not.”  The next came with great conviction.  “But it is going to get better.”  Reaching out, he finger-combed his brother’s unruly hair, his hand lingering at the boy’s cheek.  He gave him a small slap.  “If you learn to behave,” he admonished.

If it had been anyone else besides Scott, Johnny would have knocked him on his ass.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Their father was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs.  Scott was as surprised as his younger brother, but his reactions were swifter.  He did a quick, agile two-step and disappeared through the front door, giving -- Johnny thought -- some lame excuse about a sudden need for a breath of fresh air. 

Murdoch was holding something concealed at his side; a puzzled smile gracing his lips as he watched his eldest son disappear across the threshold.  Shaking his head, he turned his attention to his younger boy.  He offered the bundle without saying anything.       

Instinct prompted Johnny to immediately reach out to take the belt, but, warily, he stayed his hand.   “What’s this?” 

Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched.  “Your pistol,” he answered.  “You’re going to hang it up on the rack in the front hallway; next to your brother’s and mine.”  He took a deep breath.  “Tomorrow we’ll be going into Green River, to see Sam about your leg.  And after that, we’ll be visiting the gunsmith, where you’ll purchase a new pistol; something more utilitarian, more suited to ranch work,” he finished.

“Don’t need a new piece,” Johnny muttered.  He reached out, taking the belt and fighting the urge -- the need -- to strap it on.

“Compromise,” Murdoch said firmly.  “I don’t expect you to go about unarmed, Johnny, but that…” he pointed to the Colt, “…is like an advertisement; a challenge.  ‘Here I am, Johnny Madrid, come try me.’”

The words stung, and it showed in the youth’s face; his eyes.  “It ain’t like that, Murdoch,” he murmured.  But it was, and he knew it.

“This is a one-time offer, son,” Murdoch declared.  “I suggest you take it.”  He smiled.  “Hang it up, Johnny,” he said, his tone softening.  “Maria is getting ready to serve dinner; and after everything that has happened today, I don’t think it would be wise to keep her waiting.”  With that, he gave his son’s shoulder a pat, and headed for the table.

“Well?”  Scott stepped back into the hallway; a tenuous smile gracing his features.

“He said he’s takin’ me into town tomorrow to buy a new one,” Johnny groused, hefting the pistol.  The fingers of his right hand were caressing the walnut grip of the Colt; as tender as a lover’s touch on a woman’s most intimate parts.

“It’s a start, brother,” Scott counseled.  “A compromise.”

Johnny laughed.  “Jesus, Scott!  You and the Old Man are sure in love with that word!”  He quickly sobered.  “How come every fuckin’ time there’s a compromise, it costs me somethin’?”

Scott reached out a long arm, and smacked his brother’s compact rear end; hard enough it propelled him in the direction of the wall rack.  “It is what it is, Johnny,” he grinned.  “Put it where it belongs.”  He nodded towards the Great Room.  “We’re going to dinner, not to war.”

It was more tempting than ever now to strap the pistol back into place against his right hip; and Johnny almost succumbed.  And then Maria stepped up into the hallway from the Great Room.  The woman’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed both young men; the imperious gleam in her dark orbs conveying more meaning than if she had called out their names. 

Johnny was already backing away from the woman, his right hand uplifted as he displayed the gun belt.  “Just puttin’ it up, Mamácita,” he flashed a white-toothed grin, “like the Old Man…,” he was stuttering now as he corrected his blunder, “Murdoch told me to do.”  The smile faded as he realized she was advancing on him and that she was armed.  Her arms were folded, but the large silver soup ladle was tapping an ominous tattoo against her forearm.  Desperation had the young man babbling as he retreated down the hallway.  “Hey, the clock hasn’t even…”  He closed his eyes as he heard the slow grind of the mechanism as the great clock prepared to strike.


This time it was the elder Lancer brother who created a masterful diversion.  “Maria,” he smiled, bowing slightly before cupping her arm in his palm to steer her towards the kitchen.  “Would it be too much trouble if I had milk with my meal tonight, instead of wine?”

The woman’s features immediately softened and the tap-tap-tapping of the spoon had ceased.  ¿Usted no se siente bien, Scott; su estómago esta intranquilo?”  ("Are you not feeling well, Scott; is your stomach unsettled?")  It would be a wonder if it were not, she mused, with all the closed doors and the shouting.

He shook his head, smiling.  “No, Maria,” he assured her, patting her arm.  “I just think milk will go better with that delightful cake I smelt baking earlier.”  He continued to guide her towards the kitchen.

Johnny made it to the table; with two dongs to spare. He slid into his chair and grinned across at his father.  His gaze shifted to Teresa, who returned his smile with a decidedly cold frown.  Still pissed over the cushions, he reckoned.  Biting his bottom lip, he dipped his head, hiding the smirk.  If he was lucky, she wouldn’t talk to him for a week; maybe more.

The clock tolled the final time, the sound fading away into the gathering twilight; leaving an awkward silence in its wake.

Scott was aware of the unusual hush when he arrived at the table.  He was carrying a glass and a large pitcher of cold milk.  “My apologies for my tardiness, sir,” he said, slipping into his chair. 

Suspicious, Murdoch eyed first his son, and then the pitcher of milk.  “And that?” he asked, nodding towards the container of milk.  In the time Scott had been at Lancer, the only thing even close to a glass of milk he had consumed was the cream he used in his coffee.

Scott was about to answer when Maria came through the door carrying a large covered tureen of steaming soup.  She placed the bowl on the table to Murdoch’s right; removing the lid and stepping back slightly.  “Patrón.”

It was Johnny who spoke up.  “Kinda late, Mamácita,” he scolded the woman.  He flashed her a cocky grin, and then -- to make his point -- swung his gaze to the Grandfather clock.  Not the smartest thing to do when he realized everyone else was also now looking at the battered clock face.

Murdoch turned his eyes back to his younger son, unable to believe the boy’s audacity.  Scott was also studying his brother’s face, his right eyebrow arching as it occurred to him the stress of the long day had driven his sibling over the edge and Johnny was now stark, raving mad.  “Johnny,” he breathed, shaking his head.

Maria was more verbose.  The woman’s eyes flashed; the pupils growing large and radiating the same dark fire as polished onyx.  Her voice menacing, she unleashed a sharp tirade in rapid-fire Spanish; moving around Murdoch’s chair to stand in front Johnny, shaking her finger beneath his nose as she delivered a harsh lecture.  She left nothing out; cataloguing everything from his lack of respect for his elders to his belligerent refusal to do what he was told when he was told.  Finished with her rant, the exasperated woman threw up her hands in frustration, crossed herself, and stalked out of the room.

Johnny had been holding his breath the entire time the woman chastised him.  He blew out a long quavering sigh, turning to look at his father and waiting for further rebuke.  None was forthcoming.

“Soup?” Murdoch asked, the ladle poised above the tureen.  The corners of his mouth were twitching, and he was struggling not to laugh.

Teresa dissolved into a fit of giggles; hiding her face with her napkin before excusing herself and rising from her chair to disappear into the hallway.  Her favorite part of the lecture had been when Maria reproached Johnny for not only his bad habit of kicking his dirty clothes under his bed, but of sleeping with his bare bottom exposed to God and all the saints of the Holy Mother Church. 

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Scott blew into the coffee cup, feeling the warmth of the liquid as tendrils of steam teased his upper lip.  He was perched on the edge of the kitchen table, watching his brother; who was elbow deep in dish water.

Johnny’s mood was decidedly waspish.  He turned, glaring at his sibling.  “You gonna help, or what?”

The blond pretended to think about it.  “No,” he said finally, taking a sip of coffee.  “Maria was very specific in her instructions.  You,” he gestured towards his brother with his mug, “are to do the dishes, and I,” the cup swung back in his own direction, “am to supervise.”  Mindful of his chore, he nodded towards the plate his brother had just placed on the tiled counter. “I think you missed a spot of gravy there.”

A string of muttered curses rose above the sound of swishing water.  Scott watched as his brother rewashed the dish; noting a slight tensing of the youth’s shoulder.   “Don’t even think about it,” he cautioned.

Johnny ignored the warning. Wadding up the dishrag, he spun around and made the toss.  He was rewarded for his effort with a satisfying splat! as the wet rag slapped against his brother’s face.

Scott grabbed the cloth as it slipped down his right cheek.  He put down his cup.  “That...” he said, grabbing the corners of the cloth and quickly spinning it into a tightly wrapped cord, “…is going to cost you, brother.”  Flicking his wrist, he popped the younger man with the wet rag; grinning at the sharp crack that resounded when the cloth snapped against the leather calzoneras.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch Lancer stood in the hallway, just beyond the kitchen door.  He remained in the shadows, his head canted towards the sounds of booted feet scuffling across the tiled floor.  There was a great splashing sound, followed by Johnny sputtering a string of swear words punctuated by laughter.  More water noises came; a rush not unlike the babbling of a rain-fed stream spilling down the side of a mountain.

He could hear them slip-sliding across the now slick floor; could visualize them attempting to gain purchase against the tiles, and failing.  Risking a closer look, he peered around the casement, wincing as Scott went down hard on his compact rear-end.  The young man had managed to drag his brother with him, and they tussled like weanling pups before regaining their feet.

Scott had his brother in a headlock.  He dragged him to the sink, reaching down into the basin to cup a hand full of water.  “I’m going to scrub out those ears, boy; make sure you can hear me when I tell you to do something,” he laughed.

Johnny elbowed his brother in the belly; quickly turning about to grab him around the neck with his left arm.  “They baptize people in Boston, Boston?” he gasped, grabbing a bowl from the counter and dipping it into the nearly empty sink.  “‘Cause here at Lancer, it’s a rule…”  With that, he dumped the contents onto his brother’s head.

Water dripping from his shoulders, Scott paused only long enough to rake his fingers through his hair before digging a full mug of water from the sink.  Johnny used his hand to stop the forward swing of his brother’s arm; realizing his mistake as the liquid erupted from the vessel.  The now ice-cold water flooded across the front of his pants at his crotch, causing him to immediately grab at his nether regions.  “Whoa!” he cried out, pulling the damp leather away from the family jewels and doing a little dance.

Scott roared in laughter.  “Little accident there, brother?  Baby need a diaper?” he chortled, seizing a square of white muslin from the back of a chair.  He formed a triangle with the cloth and advanced on his sibling; intent on doing the job.

Johnny’s feet slipped from beneath him as he fell backwards on his butt, Scott right on top of him.  The younger boy was laughing.  “Goddammit, Scott,” he choked out, rolling onto his side and attempting to draw his knees up as he slapped at his brother’s determined hands.

Scott succeeded in getting the make-shift diaper attached to his squirming sibling’s compact butt, knotting the cloth at the boy’s waist; raising his hands as if the entire thing had been a rodeo event and he was being timed.  His reward was to be head-butted by his brother, and the two young men were soon rolling across the wet floor.

For a brief moment, Murdoch considered stepping into the kitchen; of once more assuming the duties of a stern father, a privilege he had been denied far too long.  Then, hearing even more boisterous laughter, he reexamined what it was he was really feeling: a strong tug of paternal affection that warmed his very soul. 

Surreptitiously, he watched and listened as the horseplay and the splashing continued.  The boys were on their feet again, competing for space and water at the sink.  The white dish cloth Scott had used to diaper his brother’s leather-clad butt was hanging askew on Johnny’s hips, more off than on, resurrecting an old memory that made the tall Scot smile.  A rear view of Johnny as a toddler, running away from his nurse; wiggling out of the flannel cloth just before escaping out the front door.

Murdoch eased back again into the shadows.  Fate had robbed him of his boys when they were children; just as ruthlessly plundering their lives and denying them their father.  But they were together now, all of them; beneath a common roof sharing a common hearth, and for the moment that was more than enough.

Today had been difficult.  He had faced -- shared -- some hard truths.  Tomorrow, he hoped, would be better.  Smiling, he turned back towards the hallway leading to the Great Room; the sound of laughter and raucous play continuing to fill the once silent shadows.  Yes.  They were together.  Lancer was taking care of its own.

And nothing on God’s green earth was going to tear them apart again.        

TBC: in The Left Hand of God        


 [gl1]Not familiar with this one.  Am assuming it’s the equivalent of our “Me cago en el coño de tu madre”  see: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/co%C3%B1o

 [gl2]Well, Johnny tried to get on familiar terms, but she formalized it quick, didn’t she.  Nice change.

 [gl3]At first I thought “it was a recent gift” but then realized you’re saying he read another bible.

 [o4]Johnny might have said ‘Spanish’







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