Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow
by  Kit

Disclaimer:  Well, you all know what I feel about Fox…  This is a follow up to A Tale of Two Kitties  In my Lancer universe, Johnny is still a kid, Scott relapses to childhood on occasion, Teresa is nothing (will be nothing) but an annoying kid sister, and Murdoch can be firm but affectionate, and sometimes quite surprising…  


Revenge is a dish best served cold.  Or at least, on time.  

Scott stood at the open to his bedroom, his eyes narrowing as they adjusted to the dark.  Before him, familiar shapes began taking form in the muted light: the compact writing desk on the far wall, the armoire opposite, his bed…

…the still form at repose in the center of his bed.

The blond crossed the threshold and pulled the door partially shut; stealthily tip-toeing across the room.  He was taking particular care in his journey across the carpeted floor, aware that his younger brother often feigned sleep, pausing every few steps and canting his head to listen.  Johnny was on his belly, his breathing regular, the boy’s lips pursed slightly; his eyes completely closed.

Moving directly to the edge of the wide bed, Scott eased down onto the thick comforter on one knee, his left foot still firmly planted on the floor.  Bending forward, his lips close to his brother’s ear, he whispered softly, “Your posterior is mine, little brother.”

Johnny bolted awake only to find himself eye to eye with his elder sibling.  He felt Scott’s long arm lock around his upper body as he was pulled across the bed and wrestled to the floor.  “Goddammit, Scott!” he cursed.  He aimed a fist at his brother’s head, only to know the frustration of missing, a whoosh coming as the blond ducked.  The force of the intended blow carried him forward onto his belly.

Scott had risen up on his knees; the fingers of his left hand closing firmly around the back of his younger brother’s neck.  The blond quickly placed his left knee solidly against Johnny’s shoulder, effectively pinning the youth against the floor.  He was not laughing, but there was humor in his demeanor; if not his method.  With a great deal of gusto, he began smacking his brother’s poorly protected rear end; hard, each swat accompanied by a single declaration, the blond’s deep baritone clearly enunciating each word.  

“What…you…did…to…Grandfather…was…inexcusable.  It’s…clear…brother…you…are…in…serious…need…of…a…firm…hand…”

Johnny bucked against the pain, which was considerable; but not near as fearsome as the humiliation of being held down with his face pressed into the dusty carpet.  Compacting his body, he yanked himself away from his brother, quickly rolling over on to his back as he delivered a solid blow to the older man’s chest; a second quick punch landing against Scott’s jaw.  He felt the warmth of blood against his fingers.

Suddenly, it was full out war; both young men scuffling with youthful vigor as they tumbled across the hard wood floor.  This was nothing like their past play; the boisterous battles where they purposely toyed with each other, testing their joint strengths and weaknesses.

Scott had the advantage of height and formal training as a boxer; Johnny the benefit of a compact body and years of back-alley fighting.   Both young men were breathing heavily, scoring coup as they punched each other; the two of them in such close quarters the damage they were doing to each other was minimal, but not without pain or consequence.

Abruptly, the door to Scott’s bedroom opened full; slamming hard against the wall as Murdoch Lancer stormed across the threshold.  Wading in, the big Scot reached out with his large hands, collaring both youth men and yanking them apart and to their feet.  He thrust Scott towards the bed, knowing his eldest son would quickly regain control of his temper.

Johnny was a different matter.  The dark-haired youth was still swinging wildly, trying hard to get to his brother, a stream of curses coloring the air.  “You son-of-a-bitch,” he swore, trying hard to pull away from his Murdoch’s grasp.  His next punch glanced off the side of his father’s head.

Murdoch gave his youngest son a shake, and then bodily lifted him off the floor so they were eye to eye.  “Calm down!” he ordered.

“He fuckin’ hit me!” Johnny shouted.  “Beat my ass like I was some fuckin’ two year old…”  He struggled to pull himself free, still intent on getting to his brother; breathing so hard he was shaking.

The big Scot’s eyes narrowed.  “I‘d advise you to settle down and control your mouth,” he growled, “before you have something more to worry about than a few love pats from your brother!”   He let go of the youth; making sure to keep himself between his sons.  “Scott.”  He turned to his eldest.  “Is this what you meant when you told me you intended to get even?”

Scott was picking up the chair that normally sat next to his bed and putting it right.  His normal calm restored, he turned his gaze on his still hard-breathing brother; addressing the younger man before answering his father.  “I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said.  Then, turning to Murdoch, he continued.  “I woke him from a sound sleep, sir,” he breathed.  “I realize now that was not a wise decision.”  Stepping forward, he offered his right hand to his sibling.  “Brother,” he said softly.

Johnny was standing just to the left of his father.  Both hands were knotted into tight fists and he was rubbing his thighs with his scraped knuckles; fighting for control.  He wasn’t about to admit that his brother had scared the shit out of him: out of that part of him that was still Madrid.  There was a sound as he exhaled.  He thrust out his right hand; accepting his brother’s.  He forced a smile he didn’t quite feel yet; the heat still radiating from his fingers as they shook.  “I got one comin’,” he murmured.  Scott simply smiled and nodded.

For the first time since entering the room, Murdoch relaxed.  And then he considered the words his youngest had just spoken.  “You do not ‘have one coming’,” he said, his voice flat as he addressed his offspring; “your brother apologized, and that’s the end of it.   Right here, right now,” he declared, pointing a rigid forefinger at the floor.  Turning to his youngest, he canted his head.  “And just how did you happen to be in your brother’s room?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Surprised by the question, Johnny answered without thinking.  “Through the window,” he replied.  “I was already up in the tree, hidin’ from Scott, and…”  He stopped mid sentence.   His head lowered, but he was smiling; and the smile was real.  Embarrassed, but real.

“I see,” Murdoch murmured.  “That damned tree again.”  He was quiet for a long moment; staring out the window into the darkness.  “You can help your brother clean up this mess,” he said finally, gesturing to the overturned furniture and the blankets that had been torn from the bed.  “And then I strongly advise both of you,” he paused, “to turn in for the night.  You’re going to have a very long day tomorrow.”

Johnny shot his brother a quick look, a wary smile coming and just as quickly disappearing.  He held his peace until their father left the room.  “So how bad do you think it’s gonna be?” he asked, whispering.  Murdoch had no sense of humor at all when it came to his sons horsing around; figuring their energies were better spent doing chores. 

Scott was gathering up the bed covers from the floor.  “One hundred thousand acres,” he mused.  “Just how many miles of wire do you think it will take to fence one hundred thousand acres?”

The brunet was on the opposite side of the bed now, helping his brother shake out and then smooth the bedspread.  “That ain’t even half-way funny, Scott,” he frowned.


Breakfast the next morning was a quiet affair.  Teresa and Maria had busied themselves at the table; tactfully avoiding asking any questions about the crop of bruises both brothers were sporting.  Even Murdoch seemed content not to make any mention of what had occurred; all three men intent on their bacon and eggs.

The elder Lancer had excused himself after a final cup of coffee, leaving his sons free to enjoy second helpings (and in Johnny’s case, a third) of the pale yellow, scrambled eggs.  Maria had just placed a generous serving on Scott’s place.  He called out to his brother.  “Pass the salt, please?”

Johnny dug into his own eggs, which he had just dosed with a generous amount of salsa.  Saying nothing, he passed the silver topped shaker.

“Thank you.”  Scott took the salter, tipping it up above his eggs.  The top fell off; a lake of salt water-falling onto his plate.  Suppressing a frown at his own naiveté -- he had fallen for the same stunt on another occasion -- he simply replaced the shaker’s top; and shoved his plate away.  Saying nothing, he stood up, and headed for the door.  Behind him, he could hear his brother’s mocking laughter.

De nada,” the younger man called, still laughing.

And thus it began.


He hated the knee-high rubber boots he was wearing damned near as much as he hated the hogs that made them necessary.  It didn’t help, that while he was inside the hog pen covered with pig shit, his immaculate big brother was standing well away from the muck; “helping” Jelly dry off the hosed-down shoats that were being shifted from the hog-mire into wooden crates.  If that’s what you could call handing someone a piece of dry burlap.

Scott waved and smiled across at his brother.  “How many more, Johnny?” he called cheerfully.

The brunet frowned; his right hand coming up as he made an obscene gesture with his right middle finger.  “One,” he lied.  Then, seeing his father striding towards them across the yard, he raised a second digit.  “Two.”

Murdoch came up beside his eldest.  He stood, hands in his pockets, watching as Johnny used the catch-pole to grab for the piglet that was racing around the pen behind its lumbering mother; both animals squealing their displeasure at the threat of separation.  “Would you care to tell me why he’s in there by himself?”

Scott grinned up at his father.  “He volunteered,” he fibbed.  In truth, he had blackmailed his brother; hinting that he might just have to tell Murdoch exactly where Johnny had found the lion cubs.

“‘Shore ‘nuf, boss,” Jelly declared.  “He come out here, talked to Scott fer a bit, and went right to work.”  He stood up; securing the peg lock on the small crate before dusting his hands off against his pants. 

Still suspicious, Murdoch took another long look at his oldest boy.  “Uh-huh,” he said.  Then, alerted by the increasing noise from the hog pen, he turned to look again in Johnny’s direction.  “Son!” he called.  “You’ve got to watch out for…”

Too late.  The sow had suddenly changed course, coming up behind Johnny and butting the youth just behind his knees.  Collapsing backwards across the pig’s snout, the young man lost his balance, his feet coming out from under him as he slid backwards unceremoniously across the sow’s shoulder and landed flat on his back in the foul-smelling slime.  “Fuckin’ bitch!” he roared.  He righted himself, tossing the catch-rod like a javelin; knowing a great degree of satisfaction as the pole thunked off the sow’s well-padded rump and the pig squealed.

Scott bit his lower lip, hard; stopping the laughter before it could erupt.  Jelly was less kind.  The old man bent over in raucous laughter.   It took him considerable time before he could compose himself.  “Sorry, boss,” he gasped.

Murdoch wasn’t much better.  Once he had determined his son wasn’t hurt, he found himself giving in to the laughter.  Johnny was a total mess from head to toe.  “May as well catch the other two,” he shouted encouragingly.

Johnny shot all three men his best Madrid glare, which only made matters worse; they laughed even harder.  There was something definitely non-threatening about Johnny Madrid, Terror of the Border being clad totally in black pig dung.  “Fuck you,” he muttered.

“John…” Murdoch warned.

Retrieving the catch pole, the youth turned back to the chore at hand.  It took him a remarkably short span of time to catch both shoats; more time to resist the urge to strangle the last one just before he dropped it over the fence into Jelly’s tub of water.


Scott had just finished his bath.  He was anxious to get ready; looking forward to the evening’s festivities.  Aggie Conway was coming to dinner, and she was bringing her niece, Caroline, who had just arrived from Sacramento.  Murdoch had been lavish in his praise and description of the girl: telling his sons how much the young woman favored her aunt (a good thing, since Aggie was an attractive woman), and how well-read and well mannered the girl appeared to be.

He entered his bedroom, taking his usual comfort from the one room in the house that was exclusively his.  The room was filled with familiar items; some new, some brought with him Boston.  Smiling, he began rummaging through his armoire; selecting what he planned to wear for the evening.  Murdoch had been adamant -- since it was to be Caroline’s first meeting with his sons -- they would dress formally for the occasion.  The smile grew.  No matter how good looking the girl, Johnny hated to get suited up.

His selections completed, the blond began to dress.  He had just slipped into his white shirt when he heard the knock at his door.  “Come,” he called.

Johnny slipped through the door.  “You sound just like the Old Man,” he grinned.  “Need a tie,” he added.

Scott laughed and finished buttoning his shirt.  Johnny’s search for a tie had precipitated their current little contest.  “You always need a tie.  What do you do with them?”

“Lose ‘em,” the other answered.  He watched as his brother put on a jacket.  “Lookin’ pretty good there, brother.  You plannin’ on makin’ some moves on Aggie’s niece?”

The blond was in front of the mirror, brushing his hair.  He was wearing it a bit longer than he had worn it in Boston, but he liked the look.  “Possibly,” he answered.  “And you?”

“Murdoch says she’s one of those nice girls,” Johnny snorted.  “How much fun can that be?”

Scott eyed his brother, not missing the mischief in the blue orbs.  “Think of it as hunting, little brother.  Sometimes the chase can actually be more fun than the catching.”

Johnny laughed.  “We talkin’ about girls here, or a case of the clap?” he teased.

The elder Lancer was shaking his head.  He opened the top drawer of his dresser and withdrew two ties; eying them a bit before picking the narrower one and tossing it to his sibling.  “You want some help with that?”

“Nope.”  Johnny frowned a bit at the tie and then shrugged.  “See you downstairs,” he said.  He disappeared into the hallway.

Scott sat down.  He reached out and picked up one of his new low-heeled walking boots; smiling as he remembered the ribbing Johnny had given him when he made the purchase.  Shaking his head, he shoved his toes into the right boot, and immediately grimaced.

He knew even before he withdrew his foot what he was going to find; immediately recognizing the stench.  Pig dung, he fumed.  I’m going to kill him!

They were already seated at the table when he came down the stairs.  Now he had two things to seek revenge for: the pig manure in his boot and the chewing out he was going to get from Murdoch for being late.


Johnny’s nerves were raw; his instincts telling him today was going to be the day.  He shot a quick look in his brother’s direction, frowning deeply when the blond simply nodded and then smiled.

Scott was always smilin’ lately, Johnny mused.  It bugged the Hell out of him, that fuckin’ smile.  Especially when he knew his brother was dyin’ to get even…

For the umpteenth time that day, Johnny checked Barranca’s cinch.  He was checking everything now.  Saddle, bridle, saddlebags; tool box.  The wagon when he had to move it…

“You forgot to check your gloves,” Scott grinned slyly.  The saddle creaked as he shifted slightly. 

Johnny frowned up at his sibling.  His gloves were in the back of the wagon; right where he had left them after lunch.  He’d also left them there when he’d taken a trip into the bushes to take care of business.   “What’d you do, stuff ‘em full of cow shit; a couple spiders in the fingertips?”

“Now, brother, why would I do that?”  The blond’s face radiated the same innocence so often seen in his sibling’s face when Johnny was up to no good.  He tapped the brim of his Stetson and moved out.

The brunet moved to the back of the wagon.  His gloves were just laying there, exactly where he had left them.  Maybe.  Stooping down to pick up a stick, he jabbed at the leather gauntlets, poking the stick deep inside.  His right glove first; then his left.  Nothing.

Scott’s laughter faded into the distance to be lost among the lowing of cows.

It hit Johnny then.  Psychological warfare, he thought, remembering what Scott had told him about the battlefield strategies he had experienced and employed during the War.  His brother had likened it to the games Johnny Madrid excelled at when he was playing with his opponents.

That’s what his brother was doing,  he realized; proud of himself.  Fuckin’ with my mind.  No pranks; just the worry there might be one.

He continued to think that way right up until they broke for lunch.   That’s when he sat down beside Scott and spied the hard-boiled egg atop his brother’s carefully folded napkin.  He grabbed the egg from beneath his brother’s fingers just as Scott was about to pick it up.

Grinning, he tapped the egg against his forehead to crack the shell; realizing too late the egg had not been boiled.  It was also rotten, and extremely rank.  The pièce de résistance came when he grabbed Scott’s napkin to wipe his face, only to discover the underside had been smeared with axel grease.


The hardest part was keeping their war private.  Johnny knew there would be major Hell to pay if Murdoch got wind of what was going on, but -- so far -- that hadn’t happened.  Of course, that was half the fun: pulling all this shit without the Old Man getting wise and screwing up the game.

Arms behind his head, he lay back on his bed; tallying up the score.  Right now, he reckoned, he and Scott were pretty even.  It had started with the loose top on the salt shaker (his prank; he’d gotten away with it twice); followed by Scott’s blackmail over where he had actually found the lion cubs (score one for Scotty).  Then he struck again: the pig shit in Scott’s new walking boots (good one, Johnny boy!).  His eyes narrowed as he ran his right hand through his recently shampooed hair.  Scott’s revenge with the rotten egg and the axel grease.  Yep.  The score was even.  Big brother had met him head on, tit for tat.

That ain’t gonna fly, he mused.   No way in Hell old Boston’s gonna come out ahead in this game. 

He needed something big, he decided.  Something that would show his brother he was dealin’ with a pro.  ‘Course it couldn’t be anything outright dangerous.  He only had one big brother -- he frowned at that, thinkin’ about the Old Man’s talent for pickin’ women and keepin’ secrets -- and he really didn’t want to lose him.  At least, not permanently.

Okay.  He had to do it away from the main house.  His eyes narrowed at that thought; his hand dropping to his waist.  He scratched himself a bit, and then drummed his fingers across his flat belly, listening to the steady thump-thump-thump.  Scott would be lookin’ for somethin’ to happen, which would make it that much harder.  He was already checking the tops on the salt and pepper shakers; had made a point of doing that at the supper table.  Checked his boots before he put ‘em on, too.

No.  This had to be somethin’ -- what was the word Scott was always usin’ -- subtle.  He smiled.  Tomorrow was Saturday.  Murdoch would be headed over to Aggie’s for supper, and Scott would be plannin’ on goin’ into town.


Maria was bustling around the wash house; muttering to herself as she sorted through the basket of dirty clothing Johnny had just brought her.  It was always the same, she sighed; the Patróns youngest boy cajoling and wheedling until he had his way with her.  Secret treats when his papa sent him away from the table for misbehaving, or for when he was late (which he often was, and mostly on purpose, she knew); talking her into doing the laundry he had forgotten to bring her on her regular wash day. 

This morning he had traipsed in with his favorite red shirt and a pile of underwear and dirty white socks, wearing that smile; those blue eyes dancing and the corners of his mouth turned up, looking for the entire world like her nietos pequeños (little grandsons) when they wanted some extra attention.  So here she was, heating water in the large copper boiler, flaking the naphtha-based soap and readying her washboard. 

She smiled, aware that he had come back into the room; and reached up for her ever-present stirring spoon.  She had two of them: one here in the laundry room, another in the kitchen, just the right size for smacking the boy’s britches when he pushed things too far.  Juanito-o-o…” she cautioned, turning around and shaking the spoon in his face.

“Whoa, mamacita,” he laughed, raising both hands and backing up.  “Just wanted to see if I could help.”

Her eyes narrowed.  She used the spoon to gesture towards another large kettle.  She would need extra water today: the copper boiler to heat water for the wash tub, another pot filled with water for rinsing; the third kettle -- because of the white socks and underwear -- for her bluing solution.

Johnny manned the pump; dutifully filling the large kettle.  He carried it to the table beside the wood stove; setting it down.  Then, his hands busy, he began exploring the bottles and cartons so carefully lined up on the shelves.  His gaze lingered on the smallest of the bottles, and he reached out, picking it up.  “What’s this?” he asked.  He held the container up for the woman’s inspection; giving it a bit of a shake.

She smacked his hand, frowning at the spot of dark blue that stained his fingers when some of the liquid seeped through the cap.  “Bluing,” she answered, using a rag to protect her own hand as she took the bottle away from him.  Men.  They knew nothing!

He surrendered the bottle.  The moist spot on his forefinger and thumb spread as he rubbed them together.  “What’s it for?”

She was carefully adding a few drops to the kettle the younger man had just placed on the table.  “To make things white,” she answered.

He laughed and held up his right hand; his complexion not quite as dark as the woman’s, but not so fair as his brother’s.  “Ain’t workin’,” he teased.

“For the clothes,” she snorted, nodding at the pile of underwear and socks.  “It takes only a small bit, and you must be careful.”

At that, the youth tried -- for a second time -- to clean the indigo stains from his fingers.  “And this?” he asked, displaying his hand.

Maria smiled at him; one eyebrow rising.  “It will wear off,” she announced imperiously.  She knew good and well a solution of water-diluted ammonia would remove the stain; but she hoped he would learn from this experience not to put his fingers where they didn’t belong.  “In time,” she added.  With that, she dismissed him with a regal wave of her hand.  “You have chores,” she scolded.


He snuck into the wash room as soon as he got home.  All day long he had worked out one plan after another for revenge against his brother; each of them assessed and duly discarded.  And then he remembered the bottle of bluing.   Laughing, he snuck the bottle from the shelf; careful to conceal the container beneath the same rag Maria had used earlier that morning. 


Scott had worked the entire day with one eye on his brother; the other on the job at hand.  Johnny, he knew, was plotting, and it wasn’t so much a question of what as when.  As long as he was prepared, he knew he could cope.  The important thing was not to react.

Now, finally, the long day was over.  His brother had taken off like a bat out of Hell when they had finished restringing the wire where the fence had washed out just above Ribbon Creek.  He knew when he got home, Johnny would already have staked claim on the upstairs bathroom.  Well, he mused, there was still the large copper tub in the old bath house.

He dismounted; unable to suppress a sudden yawn, his eyes closing as he rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth.  The sound of a small ruckus in the corral roused him from his momentary surrender to the well earned but momentary fatigue; a smile coming as he saw Barranca pacing in anticipation of his stable mate’s company.  Remmie snorted in greeting; the hide on his right shoulder rippling.  Scott patted the animal’s neck.  “You’re turn,” he breathed, hooking the left-hand stirrup on the saddle horn and unlacing the cinch.

Teresa came up beside him just as he was shutting the corral gate.  “Johnny beat you to the upstairs tub,” she smiled.   “I put your clean clothes in the bath house.”

“I wasn’t aware Johnny and I were racing,” he grinned.  “You’ve picked out what I’ll be wearing?” he teased.

The young woman nodded.  “It wasn’t all that hard, Scott, since you had everything laid out on your bed,” she reasoned.  Scott’s attention to detail and his ability to maintain a sense of organization continued to fascinate her.  “I’ve left you some fresh toweling, too.”  She curtsied.  “You bath awaits, your highness!”

He reached out to smack the girl’s behind.  “Then off with you, wench!” he ordered.  “I’ll expect my dinner on the table when I’ve finished.”

She laughed and shook a finger at him.  “My name is not Maria, and you are not Johnny Lancer!” she scolded.  “If you take too long in your bath, Scott, you’ll find your supper in the slop bucket!”  She backed away from him, giggling, and then turned and sprinted toward the house.

The blond watched after his sister for a time; thinking how much his life had changed in the few short months he had been at Lancer.  Since he had come home.  Not only had he regained a father, he had acquired a younger sister, a kid brother, and a large extended family that had accepted him without question.  He felt truly blessed.  And cursed, he smiled ruefully.  Johnny would still bear watching.

He was whistling when he entered the bath house, feeling at once the moist heat; surprised and then pleased Teresa had already filled the tub.  Closing the door behind him, he remembered to lock it.  Just in case Teresa forgot something, he thought.  Pushing himself away from the door, he headed for the tub; smiling as he saw the bubbles.  Teresa had a bad habit of reading Godey’s Lady’s Book; a publication from back East that chronicled not only the current fashions, but also gave helpful tips on everything from modern child rearing to how to civilize your spouse. The magazine also carried advertisements for products guaranteed to achieve these goals: paregoric for infant colic, medicine to cure a woman’s monthly ‘disorders’, and thinly veiled ads for potions claiming to restore a man’s ‘youthful vigor’. 

Obviously, Teresa had sent away for some aromatic bath salts recommended to not only ease the aches and pains of a hard day at work, but to improve the sometimes foul odors that came from a long day of punching cows and riding horses. 

There was an undeniable grace to the young man as he disrobed.  Scott had been, since adolescence, a physically active individual; excelling at sports and priding himself on his condition.  That had been the hardest part after Libby: retraining a body that had been physically spent, ravaged by disease and restricted activity.  It had taken him almost a year of intensive training and discipline to bring himself back to a point where he felt comfortable with his level of fitness.  The time at Lancer had only enhanced what he had accomplished during his recovery.

He stood for a time, totally naked, not one ounce of spare flesh marring his lean frame; his legs pale in contrast to his well muscled arms, which were already showing the color of an early spring tan.  Stretching, he flexed, and then stepped into the tub.

Leaning back, the man allowed himself the luxury of a full body soak, sinking down into the spice scented water almost up to his chin; closing his eyes for a moment as he worked his long legs apart and then back together.  The large tub had been crafted to accommodate Murdoch’s long frame, and it was big enough that both his sons could stretch out fully -- in fact -- float atop the water’s surface.  There were times when Scott had indulged in a fantasy or two about the tub’s size; the potential for companionship, and he laughed to himself as he thought of the women at the Silver Dollar or in Morro Coyo, or -- in a wild moment of fantasy, Aggie’s long-stemmed niece -- and what it would be like to spend a long afternoon…

Feeling himself becoming aroused, he shook the thought away.  The carnal pleasures he had been daydreaming about were not going to happen; not here, anyway.  He pulled himself up in the tub, raising his right arm to grab for the bar of Pearl soap next to the bottle of bath salts.  And then he saw it.

His entire hand and forearm were a disturbing shade of blue; indigo, almost, the cloudy blue-gray of the sea under a sunless sky.  Grimacing, he levered himself up out of the tub, watching as the blue-tinted water rolled off his skin.  Reaching out, he picked up a large piece of flannel toweling from the stool beside the tub and began to rub.  Already, he had toed the plug from the drain; the sudden rush of the water whirl-pooling down the pipe bringing him little comfort.

There was an old cheval mirror in the far corner of the room; a fine mist of vapor fogging the glass when Scott stepped before it.  Using the corner of the towel, he wiped away the residual steam, at the same time examining his body’s reflection in the glass.

From his toes to his shoulders, his entire body was the same shade of dusky blue.  His first instinct was to find Teresa and wring her neck for dosing his waters with the new bath salts, and then reason took hold.  Johnny, he thought, no doubt at all in his mind that his baby brother had just exacted his perverse revenge.

He went back to the tub, watching as the last of the water disappeared down the drain.  The copper was still marred by a faint blue residue, and Scott turned on the cold water faucet.  The stain diminished, but only slightly.  It was the same with the discoloration on his hands when he tried washing them with the bar of soap.  Forcing a calm he didn’t feel, the young man dried himself off completely and dressed.


Maria watched as Scott came through the back door of the kitchen.  She started to call out to him, hesitating as he lifted a single finger to his lips and made a sshhh sound. 

“Where’s Johnny?” he asked quietly.

The housekeeper debated answering.  She looked down at her feet, chewing on her bottom lip a bit before slowly raising her head.  It was then she caught sight of the young man’s hands.  “He went to town, Scott.  Right after you went into the bath house…”

“Is Johnny the one that prepared my bath?” he asked, his voice still whisper soft.  His tone was similar to an attorney’s; as if he were conducting an investigation.  It was his New England sensibilities taking hold; that sense of justice that would not allow him to hang his brother without some semblance of a trial.

Maria reached out, taking Scott’s hand in her own.  “Yes,” she said.  At once, she recognized the bluish tinge to his fingers.  “--tricks,” she muttered in Spanish.  She looked up at the blond.  “You should tell your Papa,” she said.  Like others on the ranch, she was aware of the games the sons had been playing, and she found herself angry with the eldest boy as well.  “I should tell your Papa!!” she threatened.

Scott shook his head.  “No, Maria.  I can and will deal with my little brother.”  Already, he was visualizing a fitting retribution for his smart-assed sibling.  “Do you know what he might have used?”

The woman nodded.  “Yes.”  She patted the back of his hand and then led him towards the laundry room.  “It won’t be pleasant,” she warned.  “And you’ll have to take another bath…”

An hour later, freshly bathed with the aroma of diluted ammonia still filling his nostrils; Scott gingerly mounted Remmie.  There was only the faintest tinge of blue marring his otherwise fair skin, and other than a residual burning sensation in his nether regions -- he fought the urge to scratch -- he was none the worse for wear.

He was also a man on a mission.


The lone rider arrived in Green River just as the sun disappeared beneath the mountains; heading not down the main street, but detouring to the back alley that ran behind the livery barn.  Dismounting, he led Remmie inside the barn; nodding in greeting as the liveryman paused in his raking.  “Mr. Tucker,” he smiled.

“Mr. Lancer,” the older man returned.  He was leaning against his rake now.  “Would have thought you’d of rode in with your brother,” he observed.  A keen eyed, hawk-faced man with slicked back thinning hair, the hostler made it his business to know the comings and goings of people who sought out his services.  He nodded to the stall where Barranca was complacently chewing his way through a flake of green alfalfa.

As was his usual practice, Scott unsaddled his own horse; pulling the saddle free and balancing it on the top rail of the empty stall next to the palomino.  “Johnny had an early start,” he said.  He stabled Remmie, patting the animal’s rear as he passed behind him; pausing to hang the animal’s blanket atop the saddle.   Stopping beside Barranca’s stall, he put his right hand through the railing.

“Wouldn’t do that,” Tucker advised.  “Johnny puts him up, and then nobody else touches that animal.  I’ve seen him take a swipe at my stable boy…”

Scott was scratching Barranca’s head with his left hand; between the animal’s ears.  “You just have to know the secret,” the blond smiled, exposing his gloved right hand.  A piece of cubed sugar rested against his palm.  “I may be late,” he continued; “and I know you generally close about nine.  Would you have any objection to leaving the side door open for me?”  He dug into his pants pocket, making a point of handing the man a ten dollar gold piece.

Tucker reached out and took the coin.  “I can do that,” he said.  He pocketed the coin and resumed raking.

Scott left through the side door, careful not to pull it completely shut.  He purposely kept to the shadows, keeping his Stetson low on his forehead as he made his way down the alley.  Poking his head out from beside the mercantile, he looked both ways up and down the street.  Waiting until there was no traffic, he sprinted across the street, heading for the narrow passageway between a vacant building and the Silver Dollar.  Then, with the same stealth, he headed up the outside stairwell.

The young man was actually proud of some of the skills he had acquired during his misspent youth.  Adept at picking locks -- literally and figuratively -- and leaping from balconies, he applied his knowledge whenever necessary.

This time it was to open the back door of the bordello.

He slipped into the hallway; grateful for the dim light coming from the kerosene lantern that hung suspended from the wall; the glass globes smoky grey and smudged with carbon.  There were six lamps, staggered in a zigzag pattern on the opposing walls; the pale glow illuminating the eight doorways that led to the individual cribs.  Scott smiled.  He and his brother had indulged in a bit of a contest here as well; personally checking out the rooms -- and their occupants.

Rachel’s room, he knew, was the first door on the right at the top of the main stairs.  He headed noiselessly down the hallway, hesitating at one of the doors when he heard the sound of muffled giggling followed by a chorus of multiple oh, God, oh, God’s before he continued on; laughing quietly at the irony.  Why, he wondered, did men cry out to God at the heights of carnal pleasure, using the same words they often used when they were dying?

He shook the thought away, heading once again for Rachel’s room; relieved to see that her door was shut but that the small nosegay of silk flowers she usually hung from the doorknob when she was “busy”, was not in place.  Rachel, he knew, was getting ready for her grand entrance.

Knocking lightly on her door, he waited; slipping inside when she called out a soft ‘come on in…’  “Rachel,” he greeted, taking off his Stetson.

She turned slightly, a long-handled powder puff poised in her right hand; her cheeks pink with rouge.  “Why, Mr. Scott Lancer,” she smiled, one finger toying with the long auburn curl at her shoulder.  “Have you come here to resume the hostilities?” she teased.    “Another Yankee penetration behind enemy lines?”  She hid her mouth with the puff, her long eyelashes fluttering; the green eyes dancing.

He leaned forward, kissing her forehead.  “The War is over,” he murmured, his breath whispering across her cheek.  “The North won.”

She smacked him with the powder puff; not very hard.  “The South shall rise again!” she declared, “and this time we will defeat the Northern aggressors!!”

He patted her cheek.  “Is Johnny downstairs?” he asked.

Rachel had turned back to the small mirror on her dressing table.  “I saw you weren’t with him, Mr. Lancer.”  She stared into the mirror, her gaze locked on the blond’s reflection.  “Are you boys playing games again?”  Rachel Fairchild -- he doubted that it was her real name -- was wise beyond her years; which is why Scott genuinely liked the woman.  That, and the fact she was a bit more genteel than the other girls who worked in the saloon.

He debated lying to her.  “Rachel, I need a favor.”  His brow furrowed.  “Actually, a couple of favors.”

The young woman had finished applying her makeup.  She turned slightly, facing the man.  “I charge for my favors, Mr. Lancer,” she smiled, “as you well know.”

Scott dug into his pocket.  He had come well prepared.  He held up a single ten dollar gold piece, adding a second when he saw no response, and began to negotiate.  “Johnny’s been a naughty boy,” he announced.  “He needs to learn a lesson, and I need you to be discreet.”

Rachel reached out, taking the coins.  She balanced them in her palm, but did not close her fingers.  “I also charge for lessons; and even more for discretion,” she bargained.  She tilted her head provocatively, her words coming in a throaty whisper.  “You don’t want me to kill him and dispose of the body, do you?” she teased.

A quick look at his faintly blue forearm caused the blond to consider the offer.  “No,” he answered finally.  He pulled out two more coins; this time twenty dollar gold eagles.  “What I want you to do,” he began, leaning forward, “is….”


Johnny Lancer was sure he had died and gone to gunfighter’s heaven.  Rachel had been decidedly playful and inventive tonight.  It was costing him a bit more than she usually charged, but -- what the Hell -- he’d never actually shared a bath tub with a woman before.  She had been all over him.  They’d done their usual dance, and then she not only scrubbed his back, she washed his hair.  And then she’d brought him a tall glass of something she called “Derby Tea”; lemonade, bourbon and lots of sugar.  Even some flakes of ice: to cool you off, cowboy, she’d whispered.

Hell, one drink, and he’d pulled her back in the tub and washed her hair!

The water was getting cold, and he felt a bit of a chill.  He was tired, too; that kind of sudden tiredness that came on when you’d done too much, too fast.  Shaking his head, he splashed some water on his face; his eyes widening as he focused.  Then, putting down the glass, he stood up.  “Hey, Rachel?  What’s a man got to do to get a towel around here?”


Scott had made a leisurely ride back to Lancer.  Remmie had been skittish; what with Johnny’s saddle secured across his hind quarters, and Johnny’s clothes knotted around the saddle horn and bouncing against his withers.  Scott reached out, giving the animal a reassuring pat.  If he felt any guilt over what he had done to his brother, it wasn’t apparent.  In fact, he laughed outright at the mental picture of his baby brother: naked as the day he was born, stuck in the bath tub in Rachel’s room.

The only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been Maria not catching him with the bottle of bluing.


“So where the fuck’s my clothes!?”  Johnny was standing in the middle of Rachel’s room, a towel wrapped around his lean waist and knotted at one side.  He was pissed; royally pissed.

Rachel wasn’t impressed.  She had a red-head’s temper, and Johnny Lancer couldn’t hold a candle to her if she decided to throw a genuine hissy-fit.  “Do I look like I would be interested in your clothes, Johnny?” she tossed back at him.  At a mere five feet; weighing less than a hundred pounds but definitely well endowed, the woman pulled herself erect and was still a head shorter than her irate companion.

He decided to change tactics; turning on the charm.  “This ain’t funny, Rachel.  I need my clothes.  The Old Man sees me like this…”  Embarrassed, he caught himself; the lop-sided grin coming.

She suppressed a giggle.  Murdoch Lancer had kept his youngest son on a pretty short leash since his return to Lancer, something that delighted and amused the young women at the Silver Dollar; and Scott was pretty serious in his new-found role as elder brother.  Johnny was always bucking against the traces, and it made him great fun.  “I don’t know where your clothes are, Johnny,” she announced.  She was truly grateful she wasn’t lying.  She knew who had his clothes, but she certainly didn’t know where they were; not exactly.

Johnny raked his fingers through his hair.  He took a deep breath; grabbing at the towel when he felt it slipping.  “How the hell am I gonna get home?” he asked.

Rachel was beginning to feel bad.  To assuage her conscience -- or at least divert it -- she fingered the gold pieces Scott had given her; the coins warm between her breasts where she had redeposited them after their bath.  “You could spend the night, Johnny.  I could pick you up something at Baldemero’s in the morning…”

He was shaking his head.  “You gonna write a note to my Old Man,” he breathed.  “Tell him why I didn’t make it home?”

Unable to help herself, she laughed.  Then, spying a brightly colored blanket lying atop her chest of drawers.  “I have this,” she offered.

Johnny reached out, taking the woolen blanket; a grin lighting his face as he recognized the weaving.  “Val give you this?”  he asked.

The woman actually blushed.  “And if he did?”

The young man laughed.  He shook his head.  “I’m gonna have to go out the back,” he reasoned.  Green River was a small town.  Anyone but Rachel was to get wind of what had happened, the Old Man would be hearing about it before high noon.  “It was Scott, wasn’t it.” he asked.  It was a rhetorical answer; he already knew the answer.

Rachel looked him straight in the eye.  “Why, Johnny Lancer,” she drawled.  “Are you accusing me of helping a man who fought against my family in the War of Northern Aggression?”

Johnny returned the look, his eyes narrowing.  “Had a man tell me once that ‘war makes strange bedfellows,’” he accused.  That man had been Scott.

Rachel was looking at the small watch that was pinned to her bodice.  “You better be going, Johnny.  Wouldn’t be a good thing if your Papa caught you coming in late.”


He was really pissed when he found out his saddle was missing.  Scott was a vindictive bastard, he mused.  All he’d done was put a little stuff in his brother’s bath water; and what did Scott do?  Set him up with Rachel (that was one), stole his clothes, (that was two) and then, to top it off, Scott had swiped his saddle (that was three).  There was no way in Hell Scott was getting away with this.

Using a knife, Johnny had cut a slit in the center of the Indian blanket, slipping it over his head like a serape.  He’d worn the cloaks before, in his days below the border; even as a little kid in an attempt to hide his gringo features.  They, too, had been made out of wool.  And they had itched.  Just like this one.

It didn’t help that the garment kept riding up his ass when he’d push Barranca to something more than a walk.  But it was getting cold; he was tired, and he was… pissed.

Yep.  Scott was going to pay.  Big time.


Late for breakfast, Johnny eased himself into his chair at the table; his butt still chafed from the ride home.  “Sorry,” he mumbled, catching the cross look from his father.  The Old Man was a real stickler when it came to getting to the table on time: breakfast at six sharp, lunch -- if you were around the house and not doing chores -- at the stroke of twelve, and dinner -- land pirates or act of God -- precisely at six.  No excuses short of being shot or dead.  Picking up his napkin, he frowned across at his brother; willing the man to look at him.  Scott, who was lingering over his final cup of coffee, was reading the paper.

The blond felt his brother’s eyes on him and chose -- for the moment -- to ignore him.  “Did you see this article about the State Senate’s proposal to build a reformatory for wayward boys, Murdoch?” he asked; rattling the paper a bit. 

Murdoch heard the humor in his eldest son’s voice, and rose to the occasion.  “Are they asking for contributions from private sources?” he ventured, cutting his breakfast sausage with his fork.

Scott pretended to read a bit more before answering.  “I’m sure they wouldn’t be adverse to donations, sir; an act of charity for a good cause.”

The elder Lancer decided to play along with his son.  “And you think Lancer should be one of those to consider participating in the funding?”  Before Scott could answer, he turned to his youngest.  “You were late getting to the table, Johnny.”  He cut right to the chase.  “What time did you get home last night?”

Johnny’s gaze swung to his father, the words tumbling from his mouth before he could stop them.  “Why?  They got a law that can put you in a reformatory for busting curfew?”

Scott folded the newspaper and passed it on to his father.  “Now there’s a thought,” he mused.   He was looking directly at his brother now; his pale eyes warm with humor. 

The brunet frowned.  When he had finally gotten home, it was to find his clothes neatly folded and resting atop Barranca’s saddle.  “Let me give you something you can really think on, Scott,” he growled, his tone decidedly hostile.  “What happens to smart ass big brother’s when they start fuckin’ around with…”

“John.”  The single word came softly, but it was clear from Murdoch’s tone he was not pleased.  “I asked you a question.  What time did you get in?”

“Late.”   The young man’s mood was sullen.  He leaned back in his chair as Maria put a full plate in front of him. 

Murdoch’s jaws tensed, and he was about to say something when his eldest son spoke up.

“We were both late, Murdoch,” Scott volunteered.  He smiled, meeting his father’s gaze head on.  “Saturday nights at the Silver Dollar can get…” he actually managed to blush, “…interesting,” he finished.  He was toying with his cup. 

The big Scot eyed his eldest, noting the faint bluish cast to the younger man’s fingers, and then swung his gaze to his youngest boy.  “I see,” he muttered.  Crumpling his napkin in his hand, he hesitated, and then stood up.  “You’ll need to clean up, Johnny.  We’re meeting Aggie and Caroline at church, and we’ll be going back to her place for lunch.”

Johnny stared hard at his father’s back as the older man left the room.  “Church?”  he croaked.

Scott reached out, tapping his brother’s arm.  “That’s what the man said,” he announced, rising up from his chair.   “Actually, he told us the other night when Aggie and Caroline were here for dinner.”  He nodded to Teresa’s empty chair.  “Teresa was going to be spending a few days with Caroline, and we’d meet up with them at church.

“You need to pay attention,” the older man smiled.

Johnny shoved back his chair.  “Oh, I’ve been payin’ attention, Scott.  I’ve been payin’ real close attention…”


Murdoch reached out, smacking his youngest son’s knee.  Johnny’s left leg was bobbing up and down, as if he were doing a one-legged highland fling.  The elder Lancer was torn by his need to be stern and the memories that tugged at his very soul.  Although he had agreed to raise his youngest son Catholic, the big Scot had often taken Johnny to Protestant services; in this very church.  The boy had been restless even then; a bundle of raw energy that required a firm hand.

Piqued, Johnny swung his head in his father’s direction; his eyes narrowing as he tried to read the older man’s expression.  What he saw surprised him.  Murdoch was smiling, his eyes radiating a peculiar warmth that softened his features.  Responding in kind, Johnny allowed a small smile before dropping his head.  His leg stilled.  Fighting the restlessness, he turned and stared out the window, allowing his mind to take him to another place.

It was a technique that had served him well from childhood.  When his mother was entertaining her men; later, when he found himself inside a jail wishing himself out. 


He turned to face his father and then looked up, realizing the big man was on his feet and nodding toward the aisle.  Already, Scott had moved forward to take Caroline Conway’s arm.  Murdoch turned and headed in Aggie’s direction; leaving Johnny behind to escort Teresa.

Once outside, Murdoch and Aggie gravitated towards the other couples that were done saying the obligatory goodbyes to the minister and his wife; the social amenities being exchanged as families separated and formed their usual cliques.  Teresa and Caroline had followed after Murdoch and Aggie; and were now standing with a group of Teresa’s chattering friends in the cool shade beneath the large cottonwood where the horses were tethered.

Scott reached out, touching his brother’s sleeve; indicating a place beside the stairs.  “And what did you think of today’s sermon, brother?” he asked.  Twice during the service he had stolen brief glances at Johnny; aware that the young man’s thoughts had been anywhere but on what the reverend was saying.

Johnny’s lips lifted in a smug smile.  As adept as he was at mentally removing himself from places he didn’t want to be, he also had a talent for subconsciously picking up on what was being said around him.  “Which part?” he asked.   “The part about how it’s better to give, than receive? 

“I kinda like that way of thinkin…”  His eyes narrowed; the smile coming.  “In fact, brother, I figure on doin’ some givin’ of my own pretty soon.”

The blond’s eyes narrowed.  He knew from his brother’s expression he was not talking about filling a collection plate.   His sibling was planning retaliation, and he had a sick feeling in the depths of his belly that their little war was about to escalate.  “We need to stop this, Johnny.”  Scott readjusted his Stetson, pulling the hat low on his forehead so that his eyes were hidden; not from his brother, but from their father, who was glancing their way.  “We’re even right now…”

Johnny followed his brother’s lead, repositioning his own hat so that only the tip of his nose and his mouth were visible.  “How you figure we’re even, Scott?”  He leaned against the clapboard side of the building, and began ticking off coup with his fingers against his right thigh.  “You set me up with Rachel.  You took my clothes.”  His head lifted slightly, “And then you took my saddle…”  He was holding up three fingers.

Scott shook his head.  Reaching out, his fingers closed around Johnny’s hand.  “That was one prank, Johnny; not three.  In retribution for that little stunt you pulled with my bath water.”  To make his point, he opened his hand; which still held a hint of blue, as if he had been outside in the cold too long.  “In case you haven’t noticed,” he made a subtle gesture with his head towards where Murdoch and Aggie were still standing, “Murdoch’s been watching us like a hawk.  He knows something is going on, and if we keep it up, he’s going to call us to account and it won’t be pleasant.”

The younger man laughed.  He shifted his weight slightly, his right hip cocked.  “Since when’ve you been worried about the Old Man callin’ us to account?” he jibed.  He leaned forward a bit, tapping his brother’s flat belly with the back of his hand.  “He scare you?” he asked.

“No,” Scott answered firmly.  “But we’ve both been at Lancer long enough to know that our father will put up with only a modicum of our foolishness before he puts a stop to it, and I, for one, have no intention spending the rest of my life staring at the posterior of some recalcitrant bovine; or excavating post holes from here to the Mexican border.”

Johnny laughed.  “God, Scott!  You can take longer’n the sky pilot gettin’ to the point!!”  He shook his head.  “Face it, big brother.  You ain’t winnin’ this one.”

Scott shook his head.  “We’re not at war,” he breathed.  “We’re done.”

“Sure we are,” the brunet snorted. 

“Boys!”  Murdoch’s voice boomed into the morning quiet, and both young men looked across to where their father was standing.

Johnny removed his hat; wiping his brow with his coat sleeve.  He was frowning, his gaze fastened on his father and Aggie Conway.  The frown deepened when he saw Murdoch bend down to whisper something in Aggie’s ear.  “They’re gettin’ kinda close, ain’t they?”  He didn’t know why it bothered him; the closeness between his father and the woman.  Hell, he actually liked Aggie.  But…

Scott’s gaze followed his brother’s; his right eyebrow rising.  “They’ve known each other a long time, Johnny,” he said softly.  He grabbed Johnny’s arm and started walking. 


It was late when they returned to Lancer.  Johnny hit the ground before the team pulled to a complete halt; pulling his tie off before he even crossed the threshold.  Teresa laughed as Scott lifted her down from the buggy.  “How much do you want to bet he’ll start undressing while he’s running up the stairs?”   She had seen him do it once; discarding items as he went.

Murdoch dropped to the ground; grimacing at the sudden stab of pain in his hip.  “You won’t get any takers on that wager, young lady.”  He nodded in greeting as Frank came out of the barn.  Stretching, he watched as the young man led the team away.  “Your brother was pretty quiet at dinner, Scott.”

Together, the family headed toward the front portico.  Scott reached out, opening the door for his sister; standing back as Murdoch crossed the threshold.   “He has a lot on his mind,” he ventured; knowing he was telling the truth.  He had almost seen the wheels turning when they were eating; Johnny lost in his plans for revenge.

Murdoch made the right hand turn into the Great Room; heading for his desk.  He resisted the temptation to press his eldest any further.  “The seed bull will be here midweek,” he announced.  “I’ll be expecting you and your brother to pick the animal up and bring it back here to the ranch.”

Scott was pouring himself a measure of brandy.  He filled a second glass for his father before pouring a small glass of sherry for Teresa.  “Not to Aggie’s?” he asked, taking the drink to his father.

Murdoch reached out for the snifter; leaning back in his desk chair before he took a drink.  “We’re going to put the bull in the field that adjoins Aggie’s land.  We’ll open a length of fence between the pastures; allow the bull to breed free range.”

The blond laughed.  “He’s going to be very busy,” he observed drolly. 

“We can only hope,” Murdoch smiled, saluting the younger man with his glass.

Teresa had settled herself on the couch.  “Busy doing what?” she asked absently.  Then, her face coloring, she shook her head.  “Forget I asked,” she said.

“Asked what?”  Johnny came through the door.  He was tucking in his shirt tails. 

“Never mind!”  Three voices answered in unison.  Teresa laughed.  She turned to look at her guardian and elder brother.  “I told you he’d already be changed.”

Johnny plopped down on the couch and put his stockinged feet up on the leather ottoman in front of his father’s easy chair.  “It’s ‘bout the same as bein’ trussed up like a turkey,” he groused.

Scott took a long drink of his brandy; smiling as he remembered his brother’s action just as they were going into Aggie’s house for the noon meal.  Johnny had grabbed his tie and pulled it to the side and slightly above his left ear, the sapphire eyes rolling and this tongue lolling out at the corner; as if the tie were a noose and he was being hanged.   “Can we assume you hung up your clothes, or is Maria going to be after you with her spoon tomorrow?” he grinned.

“Hey!”  Johnny turned to face his sibling, his lips forming a petulant pout.  “I know better’n to leave my clothes layin’ on the floor!”

The blond exchanged a quick look with his father.  “Since when?”  he joshed.  Johnny’s proclivity towards untidiness was a source of bewilderment for his father and brother; total annoyance for Maria and Teresa.  While he was diligent -- almost fanatic -- about how he cared for his weapons (Scott smiled at the double meaning of the word), his horse and sometimes his appearance, the concept of neatness was entirely foreign to the youth.   

Ignoring his brother’s quiet directions to ‘go to Hell!’  he took a final swallow of his brandy.  Setting his now empty glass on the drink tray, he stood up.  “I’m going to go upstairs.”  Nodding at his father and then Teresa, “If you’ll excuse me…”

Johnny was still seated on the large couch; staring into the fire.  It was clear from his expression he was bored.  “Kinda early, ain’t it?” he asked.  “Thought maybe we could get in a game of chess…”

Scott reached across the back of the sofa and gave his brother’s head a pat; tousling the dark hair.  “I’m going to do some reading before I go to bed, little brother.  Caroline wants to discuss Poe next time we see each other, and I need to refresh my memory.”

The brunet swiped his brother’s hand away, a slow smile crawling across his face.  Scott had read him some of Poe’s poetry; including The Raven.  “The one about the talkin’ crow?” he asked.  Silently, he was wondering how much glue it would take to paste some random pages of Scott’s newest book together.

Scott playfully boxed his brother’s ears.  “Raven,” he corrected.  Giving Johnny a final pat, he took his leave.


It had been raining for three days.  The first night, a fierce northerly wind had turned the downpour into a skin-piercing sleet; leaving a thin layer of slush that had turned the horizon and the landscape an ugly grey.  Everything on the ranch had ground to a complete halt; hearth fires being stoked in the main house and outlying buildings, only the most necessary chores being performed.

Now, on the morning of the fourth day, the downpour had decreased to the point it was simply a gentle series of intermittent spring showers; the wind shifting and an occasional break in the clouds allowing enough sun to create a rare double rainbow that arched above the snow capped mountains.  The only downside to Mother Nature’s more pleasant landscape was the inch-deep mud.     

Johnny was suffering from a serious case of cabin fever.  He sat, elbows on the table, grousing about everything.  Jabbing his fork into his eggs, he swore as the yolks broke free from the centers and waterfalled across the whites into his fried potatoes.  “Shit!  What’s it take around here to get somethin’ cooked ‘til its done?”  Ignoring his brother’s sharp look, he raised his voice.  “And where the hell is the salsa!?”

Murdoch put down his coffee cup.  “Apparently the same place as your manners,” he intoned.  “Maria isn’t feeling well this morning, and Consuela is doing the cooking.”  Consuela was Maria’s niece; a sweet, well-meaning girl who had been summoned to help Teresa.

Johnny’s first instinct was to ask how Maria was doing, but his bad mood prompted a smart retort.  “Yeah.  Well, too bad Maria ain’t taught her how to cook eggs.”

Surprisingly, the big Scot didn’t respond to his younger son’s rudeness.  Instead, he turned to Scott.  “Have you assigned the work duties this morning?”

Scott had just taken a drink of coffee.  He hesitated a bit before answering; but not very long.  “Yes, sir,” he replied; not sure where the conversation was going.

“And your brother’s chores?” the older man queried. 

The blond inhaled; exchanging a quick look with his brother.  “We were going to discuss that after breakfast,” he answered.  It was a small deception.  He rarely assigned Johnny any chores; preferring to indulge in some spirited banter as to what they would or wouldn’t do; for the most part agreeing on jobs they could do together.

“Then I can assume he’s free to work in the barn,” Murdoch surmised.  He moved aside as Teresa refreshed his cup of coffee. 

“I ain’t muckin’ out the stalls,” Johnny flared, his tone the same as his father’s; but he avoided looking at the man.  He had been in the barn earlier; checking on Barranca.  Since the family’s riding and driving stock had been stabled for the duration of the storm; there was -- in the younger man’s opinion -- enough manure and soiled bedding to fertilize Maria’s large garden and the orchard beyond. 

“Yes, you are,” Murdoch proclaimed.  “Perhaps the hard work will make you more appreciative of Consuela’s efforts when she prepares our meals.”  When he saw his son’s expression -- the petulant pout that was forming -- he pinned the youth with a dark scowl.  “End of discussion.”

Using his right hand, Johnny shoved his plate of uneaten food away; something that reminded Murdoch of the boy’s stubbornness as a toddler when he had been served green beans.  He resisted the urge to smack his son’s hand.

Scott cleared his throat, catching his brother’s attention.  They shared a meeting of the eyes, and the elder son gave a single, subtle shake of his head as he mouthed the words don’t push.

Johnny averted his eyes; angry Scott wasn’t speaking up to plead his cause.  Big brother owed him a favor after all that shit with Rachel.  “Ain’t doin’ it,” he groused.  “I’m gonna ride fence with Cip.”  Three days penned up in the house had not only made him cranky, it had also made him a tad foolish.

This time, the patriarch did smack his son’s hand; his fingers quickly closing around the youth’s wrist.  “When you were a toddler,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm, “we would have settled this with a solid swat on your bottom and a trip back to your bed until your mood improved.

“Don’t tempt me,” he warned.

The unexpected reference to his infancy surprised and unnerved the boy.  He stared for a long moment at the man’s finger’s that were still firmly locked around his wrist; and then swung his sapphire eyes to his father’s.  What he saw in his old man’s expression puzzled him; a strange mixture of humor and determination.  He also saw that his father had absolutely no intention of yielding.

The part of him that was still Johnny Madrid was threatening to take hold, and he visibly tensed at the battle that was brewing in the pit of his belly.  But the other part of him -- a sudden small and unbidden remembrance of Johnny Lancer -- prevailed.  He exhaled, and allowed only a single, curt nod of his head; the dark bangs falling across his forehead.

Satisfied, Murdoch released his son’s wrist.  “You’re going to review the logging contract?” he asked, his words directed at his eldest.

Scott visibly relaxed.  “Yes.”  He picked up his napkin, wiping the bread crumbs from the corners of his mouth.   His features were marred by a sudden frown that just as quickly disappeared.  “We’re going to need to insert some form of an addendum,” he reasoned, “about limiting the cut to mature trees only.  They’ve had trouble north of here with loggers being extremely indiscriminate about how they harvest the timber; stripping the growth and not taking into consideration the erosion that can occur during the spring run off.  We need to make it clear just where we’re going to allow them access.”

Impressed, Murdoch nodded.  “Write something up, and we’ll have John Randolph include it in the final contract.”

Johnny stood up, wadding his napkin into a ball and tossing it onto his still full plate.  Without saying anything to either his father or brother, he stomped out of the room.  Moments later the front door opened and then slammed shut.

Murdoch stared after his youngest.  “Your brother is definitely not happy with me,” he mused.

“He’s just restless, Murdoch.”  Scott smiled.  “Three days cooped up inside the house hasn’t done much to help my disposition, either.”

The big Scot grinned across at his eldest.  “You’re better at hiding it than your brother, Scott,” he said.  “I’m going to ride over to Aggie’s; see if she’s had any trouble during the storms.”  He rose up from his chair.  “Give Johnny an hour or so alone in the barn, and then have Walt and José give him a hand.”

Surprised, the younger man looked up.  “He won’t be expecting a reprieve, Murdoch.”

“Good,” the other declared.  “I wouldn’t want him to get the mistaken impression I was getting soft.”  He reached out, laying his hand on his son’s shoulder.  “And you get busy on that contract.”

Scott nodded; the corners of his mouth quirking up in a small grin.  “Any hope of a reprieve from my assigned task?” he asked.

“None at all,” Murdoch answered, heading for the front hall.  He paused at the doorway to turn back and exchange a smile with the younger man.  “Don’t think for a moment I’m not aware you were planning on reassigning someone to help your brother, Scott.  I’m sure it’s written somewhere in that book of rules your always trotting out…”  Chuckling, he left the rest unsaid, content to shake a finger at his son before he disappeared into the hallway.


Johnny had moved Zanzibar into the wide passageway between the line of stalls; tethering the stocky bay to a hitch ring on one of the twelve-by-twelve support beams.   The animal’s mood was much the same as the young man’s; fractious and ill-tempered.  Twice when Johnny came close to the big horse, the animal tried swiping at him; teeth bared and ears flat.  “Keep it up, bastardo, and I’ll feed you to the fuckin’ crows!” the youth snarled.

He pitch-forked another load of straw and droppings into the wooden wheelbarrow, scraping the tines against the sides to work the bedding free, and then jamming the fork into the earthen floor.  Cursing, he opened his hands and looked at the red bumps that were just beginning to blister. 

“You left these on the bench in the hallway.”  Murdoch offered the gloves to his son.

Startled, Johnny looked up.  He hadn’t even heard his father come into the barn.  Reaching out, he grabbed the leather work gloves.  “Checkin’ up on me?” he muttered.

Murdoch heard the insolence and chose to ignore it.  “No,” he answered calmly.  He opened the latch on the stall where his big gelding was still rooting around in its feed box; flakes of dry oats rising as the horse snorted and raised its head.  Patting the animal’s rump, he moved to its side and pulled the saddle blanket from the wooden railing.  Arranging the pad, he smoothed the bunched fabric; and then hoisted the saddle into place.  He disappeared briefly to untangle the woven girth and then set about fastening the leather straps.

Johnny watched as his father led the gelding out of the stall.  “You goin’ to town?” he asked.  He didn’t really care where his father was going; what interested him was how long the man would be gone.  His mind was already working; rehashing the plans he had been making during the rain days; another salvo in his war with Scott.

The tall Scot had just finished bridling the gelding.  He debated his answer; handing the bay’s halter to his son before responding.  “I’m riding over to the Circle C to check on Aggie; see how she’s fared during the rains.” 

There was a slight whisper of leather against damp straw as Johnny toed over a pile of drying horse apples.  “Aggie’s, huh?”  He lifted his head, his brow furrowing; not quite understanding the resentment that was clawing at his belly, just knowing it was there.  He made no effort to hide the sarcasm.  “Maybe you should just string a telegraph wire between here and her place.   That way you could check up on her every day…”

Murdoch silenced his son with a single, dark glare.  “You have work to do.  I suggest you get to it.”  With that, he led the gelding out of the barn.


The longer Johnny worked inside the barn, the angrier he was becoming.  At his father; but mostly at his brother.  As far as he was concerned, Scott could have at least made an effort to get him out of his current mess; horseshit up to his ankles and the stink of horse piss soaking into his boots.  And the whole time, big brother’s sitting on his ass in the comfort of the Great Room.

“Hey, Johnny.”  Walt instantly raised both his arms and backed up as the youngest Lancer spun around; pitchfork raised at waist level.  The cowboy jerked his head backwards in the general direction of the barn door, relieved Johnny hadn’t been packing.  “Scott sent me and José out here to give you a hand.”

Johnny put the pitchfork down; leaning it against a post as he watched José join the other ranch hand.   “Why?  He feelin’ guilty?”

Walt chewed on his bottom lip a bit before answering.  Johnny in a bad mood was an experience that didn’t come often; but when it did, it was a wonder to behold.  The youngest Lancer was as democratic in his anger as he was in his more playful, prank-pulling moods: anyone within reach received the same -- often unwanted -- attention.  “Don’t know about that, Johnny.  Just know he said we’re to give you some help muckin’ out the stalls.”

The brunet nodded.  “Didn’t mean to bite your head off, Walt,” he murmured.  Then, grateful, he smiled; his eyes dancing.  “‘Spose this means I’m buyin’ lunch,” he joked.

José was already busy ferreting out the extra pitchforks and rakes.  The youth returned to where the others were standing.  Brown eyes fired with the same boyish mischief as Johnny’s, he snorted.  “Lunch my ass, amigo.  Come Saturday night, I figure on gettin’ stinkin’ ass drunk, and not payin’ for a single cerveza!”


Johnny toed out of his boots, his cheeks coloring as Teresa started in on him.  First, about not coming to the house for the noon meal -- he had decided to eat in the cook shack with Walt and José without letting her know (a mortal sin in her book) -- and then about his shit-caked boots.  She was on a roll; hands on her hips as she gave him a piece of her mind.  Not that she had that much to spare, he thought.  “C’mon, T’resa!  I’ll clean ‘em up after I’m done upstairs!”

The young woman’s eyes narrowed.  “You’ll clean up this floor, too!” she announced, stamping her foot.  “And another thing.  I’m going to spend the rest of the day taking care of Maria, which means Consuela is going to be preparing dinner, and…”

The brunet cut her off.  “How’s Maria feelin’?” he interrupted.

“As if you care!” Teresa snapped.  “I heard you complaining at breakfast.  All you’re interested in is your stomach, Johnny Lancer, and you know it!”

Johnny grabbed the girl’s right wrist; hard enough that Teresa cried out.  “Goddammit, T’resa, I asked you how she is.”  The fact that Teresa was so upset worried him; but not enough to keep him from being mad at her for not answering his question.

The young woman pulled away, rubbing her arm.  She was about to answer when Scott came into the hallway from the Great Room.

“Do you think you two could manage to lower your voices long enough to have a civil conversation, or do you need a referee?”  Scott’s tone was quiet, even; the deep baritone edged with a shade of irritation.

Instinctively, Teresa put her right arm behind her back.  Somehow, when Scott was in his big brother mode, she felt like she was being scolded by Murdoch.  She knew Johnny felt the same way; and she inched towards his side.  “I’m sorry I yelled, Johnny,” she murmured, her eyes on her elder brother.  “Maria’s got a cold.  She’s already feeling better, but Scott said I should spend the day with her so she doesn’t over do.” 

Johnny nodded.  He leaned in towards the girl, “Sorry about…” he didn’t finish; choosing instead to reach back and pat her right arm.  His gaze shifted to his brother.  “Satisfied?”

“For now,” Scott answered.  He pointed to the stairway.  “Bath.”  Then, turning his eyes on the young woman.  “Maria.”  Satisfied they would mind, he turned and headed back to the Great Room.

“Bath,” Johnny mimicked.

“Maria,” Teresa added.  She stuck out her tongue at Scott’s back.  Planting a quick kiss on Johnny’s cheek, she took her leave.

Johnny turned in the opposite direction and headed up the stairs.  For two cents and a warm beer, he fumed, I’d tell big brother to kiss my ass; before I take a bath.

He took the bath in record time, not bothering to wash out the dirt ring he’d left behind.  Wearing nothing but a piece of toweling knotted around his taut belly, he headed for his room; dumping his dirty clothes on the floor.  It didn’t take him long to root out a clean shirt -- he picked out the red one with the embroidered front Maria had made him to replace the one he’d had when he had first arrived -- and another pair of calzoneras.  Dressing quickly, he pulled on his socks.  He debated about the boots; shrugging as he decided to leave them behind, and headed into the hallway.

He made a quick trip to Scott’s room, opening the small secretary and rummaging through his brother’s writing supplies until he found what he was looking for.  Grinning, he tucked the small prize into his front pocket, and then headed back to the hall. 

The back stairs heading to the kitchen was his route of choice, and he padded quickly down the treads; arriving at the bottom and hesitating in the doorway as he peeked into the room.  Relieved to find the room empty, he headed for the stove.  The aroma of fresh coffee welcomed him, and for once he was actually glad about one of Murdoch’s many rules: a full pot of strong coffee always brewing for whoever might have need of a shot of instant energy.

Familiar with all the accoutrements in the hacienda’s well-stocked kitchen, he headed for the cabinet that contained the porcelain coffee pot and matching cups.  Grabbing a towel from the counter, he removed the blue-flecked enamel pot from the grid; filling the china pot full.  He reached up, pulling the silver, oval tray from the shelf above the sink.  Then, with a deftness that would have made Maria proud, he arranged the pot and -- to make it look good -- two cups and saucers and the silver sugar bowl.  Almost as an afterthought, he filched a couple of churros from the plate sitting beside the oven; placed them on a checkered napkin, and stood back to admire his handiwork.

And then he poured the ink into the coffee pot.

He headed out of the door leading to the large formal dining room; wincing as he set the tray down on the long table, the big room seeming to amplify even the smallest sound.  Stealthily, he made his way to the doorway that lead to the Great Room and pressed his back against the wall; lowering himself slightly as he peered around the frame.  He had a clear view of his father’s desk; grinning when he saw that the chair was empty and Scott was not there.  For once Lady Luck was actually smiling down on him.

Returning to the table, he picked up the tray and quickly carried it into the Great Room to Murdoch’s desk; carefully pushing aside the stack of papers to put it down.  When Scott returned, he would simply assume Consuela had brought him some refreshments.

He made his exit just as heard his brother coming in from the main hallway.


Johnny felt the usual adrenalin rush as he headed back into the kitchen, and then up the back stairs.  Once he reached the landing on the second floor, he did a quick, stocking-footed version of the Mexican Hat Dance, barely able to suppress the laughter.  Life was good.  Murdoch was at Aggie’s, the fuckin’ barn was clean, and Scott was downstairs about to get his comeuppance. 

He went into his room and flopped backwards down onto his bed; finally giving in to the raucous laughter.  It took a little time to compose himself, and when he finally did, his sides were hurting.  Taking a few deep breaths, he levered himself upright and raked his fingers through his dark curls.  Then, grabbing his boots, he pulled them on.  He’d give Scott a few minutes, and then he’d join him.  But not before he grabbed himself an untainted cup of coffee and a couple of those churros.


Johnny was whistling when he reentered the kitchen from the back stairwell; a spirited rendition of The Streets of Laredo, nothing at all mournful in the ballad as he piped the tune.  And then he stopped dead in his tracks, the whistle fading away into nothingness.

Scott was at the stove, stoking the flames beneath the copper tea kettle.  He turned, facing his brother, and smiled.  “I thought maybe you had fallen asleep in the bathtub,” he teased.

The brunet moistened his upper lip with a slow roll of his tongue.  “Nope.”  He nodded towards the kettle.  “What’re you doin’?”  he asked.

“Heating some water for tea.”  Scott answered.

Shit.  Boston and his fuckin’ tea.  He hadn’t thought about that.  “Uh, I was down a bit earlier,” the younger man breathed.   He pointed to his feet.  “Forgot my boots before,” he offered lamely.  “I thought I saw Consuela takin’ you a pot of coffee.”

Scott nodded.  “Oh.  That’s where it came from.”  He wet his finger tips with his tongue and tapped them against the side of the copper tea kettle, testing the temperature.  “Murdoch and Aggie were happy to see the coffee, but Caroline asked for some tea.”

Johnny felt Lady Luck kick him in the ass.  “Murdoch and Aggie?” he asked.

“Yes.”  Satisfied the water was hot enough, Scott transferred the contents of the tea kettle into the small China teapot.  “Seems Aggie and Caroline decided to ride over here to see how we weathered the storm, and they met Murdoch halfway.  Aggie said things were fine at her place, and they decided to come back here.”

Johnny swallowed.  “They’re in the Great Room?”

“What part of ‘Murdoch and Aggie were happy to see the coffee’ did you not hear, little brother?  Of course, they’re in the Great Room.”  Scott placed a tea cozy over the flowered pot.  “Grab me a cup and saucer, will you?  I’ll get the cream.”

Ignoring his brother’s request, Johnny took off like a wanted man with a Pinkerton on his tail, sprinting for the Great Room and silently appealing to St. Jude for intervention.  He dropped down the single step into the big room, his elder brother right behind him, and knew at once St. Jude hadn’t been listening.

Scott’s eyes widened in shock as he beheld his father.

“Murdoch?”  “Aggie?”  “Sir.”  “Aunt Aggie?”  The words came in a harsh cacophony of voices, the shock evident as the two coffee drinkers stared at each other across partially lowered cups.  Caroline, Aggie’s niece held her hand to her mouth in a feeble attempt to stifle a giggle and then bolted in the direction of the kitchen.

Murdoch’s face betrayed his astonishment as he gazed at Aggie Conway.  The woman’s normally rosy lips were almost black, the discoloration forming a thin mustache above her upper lip.   The woman gave a tenuous smile, displaying a row of mud black teeth.  Then, with a grace that belied her innermost feelings, she returned her cup to the serving tray, and dug into her vest pocket for a handkerchief.

Scott found it difficult to not stare at his father.  Murdoch’s mouth was moving, but the elder Lancer son found it impossible to concentrate on the words.  His father’s face reminded him of a cheaply constructed marionette he had seen once during his visit to France, the dark, exaggerated lip-lines frozen in a permanent grimace and moving up and down.  He shook his head to clear the vision away; just in time to hear his father’s next words.  They came whisper soft, but with great intensity. 

“I assume this has something to do with all the foolishness that has been going on between you and your brother?”  The words were directed at his youngest son.  Murdoch knew from past experience the more innocent the boy’s expression when mischief was afoot; the more likely he was to be guilty as sin. 

Johnny backed up; putting some distance between himself and his father.  He found himself colliding with his brother; taking a strange comfort from knowing Scott was at his back.  “Jeez, Murdoch,” he began, suddenly at a loss for words.

“Did you or did you not put something in the coffee?”  Murdoch ground out; his eyes boring into his younger son.  The cup and saucer the man was still holding in his shaking right hand was clattering, and he put it down on the desk.

The brunet’s eyes drifted from the china to his father’s hand and then crawled up to the man’s face.  “Ink,” he blurted out.  The sudden need to piss his pants diminished as soon as he said the word.

“And where did you get the ink?” Murdoch asked; his eyes as cold as the winter run off up on the Ribbon.

The question surprised Johnny and it showed on his face.  What the hell does it matter? he thought.  Could’a been shipped in from Inverness with the Scotch, and his ass would still be in a sling.  He was thinking hard of an answer.

“Well!?”  Murdoch demanded.  He had dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief; blotting as opposed to wiping.  The black stain on the soft cloth only made his frown more severe.  “Did you use the ink from here,” he stabbed a finger toward the inkwell on his desk, “or from my study?”

Johnny nervously shifted from one foot to the other.  “Scott’s desk, upstairs,” he answered; still wondering why the Hell it made any difference.

Shit!  This softly from Scott; who quickly looked up and made a hasty apology; dipping his head slightly at Aggie.  “My apologies, Aggie.”  He flashed a sympathetic look towards his doomed brother.  “It’s India ink,” he said, shifting his gaze to his father.  He fought hard against the involuntary twitching at the corners of his mouth; clenching his teeth in an effort to stop the grin.

Murdoch’s mouth -- his upper lip showing traces of black -- was a grim, narrow line; his jaw set.  India ink was the preferred choice of accountants; it stayed true on the printed page and was practically indelible.

“Baking soda and lemon juice.”  Aggie had sufficiently recovered; was, in fact, trying hard not to laugh.  She turned her gaze from Murdoch to Johnny, and then back to the patriarch.  “We’ll need to brush our teeth, and Teresa will have to soak the china.”   Unable to contain her amusement any longer, she allowed a small smile to touch her lips; a soft laughter coming before she had to cover her mouth and turn away.  

Murdoch was not amused.  He turned to his youngest son.  “You…” he was struggling to hold his temper, and it was a losing battle.

Resigned to what he knew was coming, Johnny raised his right hand.  “I know, I know,” he breathed.  “Wait for you in your study…”  He started to turn, only to hear his father call out to him.

“Your room, John,” the big man declared.  “You will wait for me in your room.”

Johnny cringed at the ultimatum; the memory of the last time his father had sent him to his room suddenly flashing in his mind.  “Shoulda stayed in front of that fuckin’ firin’ squad,” he muttered.

“What?”  Murdoch snapped.

The younger man closed his eyes and exhaled; his lips slightly pursed.  “Just thinkin’ out loud,” he answered back.  Although it galled him to do it, he added, “Sir.”  He took off for the hallway before his father had a chance to respond.

Scott watched as his brother departed.  “I have some extra tooth brushes upstairs, Father,” he said softly; somehow feeling it would be wise to use the endearment.  “And some tooth powder I brought with me from Boston.”

Murdoch’s jaws were still tensing.  He reached out a comforting arm to Aggie, only to become aware she was still giggling.  “This isn’t all that amusing, Agatha,” he scolded, turning the woman to him.

She raised her face, laughing outright when she saw the man’s ink-stained lips.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch,” she apologized.  “I was just recalling all those times you’ve told me how happy you are your boys are back….”

The big Scot cleared his throat; shooting a look at his elder son across the top of the woman’s head.  “Well, yes,” he inhaled.  “But there are definitely times…”

Scott dipped his head.  “I’ll get the toothbrushes and the powder,” he said, backing out of the room.

“I’m going to have a few words to say to you, too, young man!”  Murdoch called after his eldest. 

Arms outstretched, one hand on each side of the doorway, Scott hesitated; then turned his head.  “Should I wait in my room?” he asked playfully.

Murdoch waved him off.  


A semblance of peace and order had been restored; at least to the first floor level of the Lancer hacienda.  The porcelain coffee service was soaking in the kitchen sink, Murdoch’s and Aggie’s lips and teeth had returned somewhat to their previous condition -- there was only a faint dull grey line above Murdoch’s upper lip -- and now the two friends were sitting in front of the fire finishing the last of a much needed measure of brandy.

“You and Caroline should reconsider about staying for dinner,” Murdoch said quietly.  “You can stay here for the night, and go back home in the morning.”

Aggie held the small brandy snifter cupped in the palm of her hand, the stem protruding from between two fingers.  “I thank you for the offer, Murdoch, but the days are getting longer, and we’ve plenty of light for the ride home.”  She saluted him warmly with her glass.  “Besides,” she teased, “you still have to sort things out with Scott and Johnny.”

The man snorted.  “Easier said than done,” he muttered.  “I’ve been aware they’ve been playing at war with each other, but -- up until this afternoon -- they kept their little game private, between the two of them.”

“Johnny thought you’d be gone well into the evening,” the woman reasoned.  “You told me he knew you were coming over to the Circle C.  He had no way of knowing Caroline and I would run into you half-way here, and decide to ride back to Lancer.

“I think Johnny just assumed he and Scott were going to be alone for the afternoon and,” she shrugged, “things just didn’t go quite as he planned.”

Again, a loud guffaw from the Lancer patriarch.  “That boy doesn’t plan, he creates havoc,” he announced.  Murdoch crossed his feet at his ankles, rearranging his legs on the leather hassock.

“Is that…”  Aggie had come forward slightly in her seat on the corner of the long couch.

“Excuse me, sir.”  Scott had stepped into the Great Room.  “Consuela is wondering how many place settings we’ll need for dinner.”  He and Caroline had been sharing a friendly cup of tea in the kitchen; along with a spirited discussion of Poe’s dark poetry.

Murdoch thought about it for a moment.  “Aggie?  Have you reconsidered about dinner?”

The woman shook her head.  “We won’t be staying, Murdoch.”  She turned, smiling at Scott.  “Have you and Caroline finished your tea?”

“Yes.”  The blond nodded.  “Our discussion regarding Poe, however, is another matter.”  He shifted his gaze to his father.  “About the table, sir?”

“We’ll eat in the kitchen, Scott.  It will just be the two of us.”

Scott’s brow furrowed.  It had been several hours since Johnny had been sent upstairs.  “And Johnny, sir?” he asked.

Murdoch finished his brandy before answering.  “He won’t be joining us,” he replied.

Aggie Conway studied Murdoch’s face; saying nothing until she was certain Scott was no longer within hearing distance.  “What you said earlier, Murdoch.  About Johnny creating havoc?”

The big rancher canted his head, facing the woman.  “You started to ask me something; before Scott interrupted.  What’s on your mind, Aggie?” he asked softly.

The woman leaned forward again, her green eyes radiating their usual warmth when she addressed the man.  “I was going to ask you why you treat Johnny so differently than you treat Scott,” she said with her usual bluntness.  “Why, for instance, since they have both, as you’ve indicated, been playing at war, Johnny is in his room and Scott…” she gestured toward the hallway with a small sweep of her hand.

Murdoch’s jaws tensed; as if he had taken affront at the woman’s question.  And then his expression softened.   It was clear, however, he was taking some time to consider his answer.  “You know, Aggie, that Johnny hasn’t reached his majority yet.”  He wet his upper lip with the tip of his tongue.  “In spite of whom he was, what he was, there is still a …”

“…part of that mischievous little boy that disappeared with Maria all those years ago?” Aggie finished, the words coming softly.  She and her husband, Henry, newly settled; had been in the valley when Maria Lancer vanished.  They had seen the devastation the woman’s betrayal had caused; the pain.  Reaching out, she took Murdoch’s hand in her own.

Murdoch found himself stroking the woman’s hand with his own long fingers.  “Scott’s more settled than his brother,” he began, “more predictable.”  His face suddenly beamed with no small measure of paternal pride.  “Not that he’s averse to joining Johnny in his trouble-making.”  The smile was still there, but tempered.  “Scott learns from his mistakes,” he continued, “from the lessons fate has dealt him.  He knows when to draw the line.  But Johnny…” he stared for a moment at Aggie’s hand, so small within his own.  “Johnny tempts fate; makes a game of tempting fate.

“It scares me, Aggie,” he finished.  “I’m afraid if I don’t impose some rules, if I don’t…

“…father him, you’ll lose him?”  Aggie pulled her hand free.  “It’s not easy, Murdoch, balancing love and discipline.  But it can be done.”  She stood up and straightened her skirt.  “I know.  My parents were very strict, and extremely loving.”  Her face brightened.  “And see how well I turned out!”

Murdoch untangled his feet and rose up from his chair.  “You’ll get no complaints from me on that score, dear lady,” he murmured.  Gently, he kissed the woman’s forehead, and then took her arm; escorting her towards the hallway.


Murdoch watched as Scott returned to the kitchen table.  He took a long drink from his cup, surveying the younger man over the brim as his son settled into his chair.  “I don’t recall telling you to take a tray up to your brother, Scott.”

The blond picked up his napkin; the starched linen making a crisp ‘pop’ as he shook it out.  “He’s a growing boy, Murdoch,” he smiled.  “Besides, you know how cranky he gets when he doesn’t eat.  I thought I’d spare us that experience at breakfast tomorrow morning.”

The older man suppressed a smile.  “What makes you think I’m going to let him out of his room for breakfast?” he asked.  He speared a piece of beef with his fork, dabbing it into the small mound of horseradish on the corner of his plate.  “Or you, for that matter.”

Scott’s had just filled his mouth with a carrot that wasn’t as tender as he expected.  It took him a little time to chew the vegetable before he could swallow it or respond.  “You want to talk about what’s been going on,” he said finally.

“All of it,” Murdoch answered.   “Everything leading up to the incident this afternoon.”  He watched his son’s face, studying the younger man’s profile, and could see Scott mulling over his answer.

There was a soft sound as Scott inhaled.  Where to start, he mused.  He decided on a small diversionary tactic, hoping it would work and he wouldn’t have to explain anything.  “If Johnny and I had grown up here at Lancer,” he began, turning to face his father head on, “would you have approved of me tattling on my brother?”

Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched and he eyed his son suspiciously.  Well, if the boy wanted to play games, he was certainly feeling up to the competition.  “That would depend, Scott; on what your brother had done.”  When he saw a trace of a smile appearing on the blond’s face, he hesitated, and then plowed on.  “I wouldn’t have wanted you running to me every five minutes with some minor tale of woe.  However, if your brother was doing something that could cause him to get hurt, or cause some injury or insult to someone else, then I most certainly would have expected you to come to me.

“Which,” he continued, “you obviously didn’t do in this case.”

Scott considered his father’s words.  Score one for the Old Man.  On to round two.  “Johnny didn’t intend that coffee for you or Aggie, sir,” he reasoned.  “That was a little prank meant for me.”

The big Scot was having none of it.  “You’re missing the point, Scott.  Aggie and I did drink the coffee, and we are both very fortunate we didn’t consume enough that we became ill.”

The younger man appeared, once again, to be thinking.  Carefully, he mapped out the words in his mind.  He shoved his near-empty plate away, taking the time to pour a fresh cup of coffee; offering to do the same for his father before putting down the pot.  “I suppose it started with the telegram from Grandfather,” he began.  “About the cougar cubs.

“I know that Grandfather can be…”

…a pompous pain in the ass, Murdoch thought.

“…an insufferable bore on occasion,” Scott continued, “but I really did feel that Johnny carried it a bit too far when he put those cubs in Grandfather’s trunk.”  He shook his head.  Life with Johnny was always full of surprises, but that specific stunt had been particularly spectacular and far-reaching.  “Then he climbed the tree into my room…”

“And you woke from a sound sleep,” Murdoch intoned.

Scott fought the smile and gave up.  And smacked his posterior.”  He paused.  “The next morning he passed me the salt, with the top loosened to the point the shaker opened and spoiled my breakfast.”  He took a deep breath.  “So, when we went to help Jelly with the shoats, I…negotiated a small deal with Johnny so that he was inside the pen, and I wasn’t.”

“Negotiated?”  Murdoch asked.

“Suffice it to say I had some information Johnny didn’t want shared,” the younger man answered.  He met his father’s eyes.  “Nothing that’s relevant, sir, I assure you.”  It was a minor lie, but he wasn’t prepared to tell his father that Johnny had been up on Black Horse Mesa when he was supposed to be working somewhere else.  “In return, he put pig dung in my new boots; the night Aggie and Caroline came for supper.”

Murdoch’s head was beginning to swim.  “Which is why you were late for dinner,” he surmised.

Scott nodded.  “I waited a few days.  And then I left what Johnny thought was a hard boiled egg on a napkin next to me when we broke for lunch.”  He risked a look at his father, and wondered if what he was now doing was anything like going to confession.  “The egg was not only raw, it was rotten.  Johnny picked up the napkin to wipe his face, but I’d already smeared the unexposed side with axel grease…”

The patriarch was almost afraid to ask, but was unable to resist.  “And then what happened?”

Scott held up his right hand.  The blue had finally faded away.  It had taken a second bath with diluted ammonia; not the most pleasant thing under any circumstances.  “Johnny put bluing in my bath water.”

Murdoch almost choked on his coffee.  If nothing else, his sons were creative.  Their warfare, however, had certainly escalated.  “And you retaliated how?” he asked.

This one was going to be a bit dicey, Scott realized.  Hung for a lamb, hung for a sheep, he mused, but he was still going to be spare in giving the complete details.  Somehow, having purchased his younger brother a tumble at the local brothel didn’t seem like such a good idea right now.  “I arranged a little surprise in Green River for Johnny.”  It wasn’t working.  “I stole his clothes when he was upstairs at the Silver Dollar, along with his saddle from the livery.”  In his own defense, he offered up the next.  “Johnny’s clever.  I knew he’d make it home all right.  What I didn’t anticipate was that it would make him late for breakfast.”

Murdoch’s eyes closed as he swiped a broad hand across his face.  He silently thanked God that neither of his wives had borne him twins.  His voice betrayed his growing frustration.  “So Johnny’s little stunt this morning -- the ink in the coffee is --”  he tried ticking off what he had been told on his fingers, giving up when he reached six “your brother’s most recent guerilla attack?”

Taken aback by his father’s tone, Scott nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

“Is there anything else you’d care to tell me?” Murdoch demanded.

Scott shook his head.  He wasn’t about to tell his irate parent he had suggested a truce to his younger brother; an armistice Johnny had roundly rejected.

Murdoch shoved back his chair and stood up.  “Come with me,” he ordered.

Scott followed his father up the back stairwell; both men taking the stairs by two.  It didn’t take long to reach the door leading to Johnny’s bedroom.  As was his usual custom, Murdoch rapped solidly on the door a single time, and then opened it.

Johnny bolted up from the bed, his heart racing.  He swallowed hard; surprised his brother was right behind the Old Man.  “Hey,” he called.

The blond nodded.  He followed his father into the room.

Murdoch pointed to the bed.  “Sit,” he ordered.  “Both of you.”  He watched sternly as his sons obeyed, the two young men perching on the edge of the mattress, their hands knotted against the ticking like runners preparing to push off.  The tall Scot began pacing, his hands clasped behind his back.  “It hasn’t been that long ago since I told both of you this foolishness was not going to continue.  In fact,” he declared, his voice rising as he came to a complete halt, facing his boys, “it is going to end.  Right here, right now!”  To drive home his point, he jabbed a single finger at the floor.  Somehow he had the feeling he had given this same speech before, in the not-too-distant past. 

Johnny stole a look at his brother and shrugged; as if he didn’t have a single idea what his father was talking about.  “What foolishness?” he asked in a mock stage whisper; the blue eyes wide and shining with complete innocence.

Unable to stop himself, Scott jabbed his younger brother in the ribs; hard.  He swore he could actually feel the looming eruption beneath his feet, the same rumble he had experienced during his tour of Europe when he was sixteen, when he and his tutor had scaled the heights of Mt. Vesuvius and the felt sleeping giant yawn.  “Dammit, Johnny,” he cursed.

Murdoch loomed above his sons.  He reached out, tapping his eldest on the shoulder.  “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Scott nodded.  “You’ve more than made your point, sir,” he answered.

“Good,” the big man answered.  He withdrew his hand, picking up the tray that was sitting on the bedside table; handing it off to Scott.  “Out.”

The blond stood up; taking the tray.  “I’d prefer to stay, Murdoch,” he announced.  As angry as he was with Johnny over his brother’s stubborn determination to keep pushing their father, he really didn’t feel good about leaving the room. 

“And I prefer that you leave,” Murdoch snapped.  He pointed towards the door.

Scott considered the request; his gaze momentarily shifting from his father’s face to his brother’s.  Johnny wasn’t smiling anymore.  The blond felt a need to try something more.  He nodded at his sibling.  “We’ve already discussed a truce, Murdoch,” he said; not bothering to say the discussion had occurred days before after church.  He lifted the tray as if to indicate the peace negotiations had taken place when he had brought his brother’s supper; hoping the ruse would work.  “Johnny’s agreed.”  He hesitated,  “Haven’t you, brother?”

Under ordinary circumstances, Johnny was pretty good at bending the truth when it suited him; other times he was a piss-poor prevaricator.  This was one of those other times.   “Sure,” he drawled.  “Why the hell not?”  It was probably the way his mouth quirked up at the corners and the gleam in his eyes that gave him away.

It was very clear Murdoch wasn’t buying it.  Scott felt himself being physically escorted to the door and shoved across the threshold.  The bedroom door slammed shut in his face.

The War Between the Lancer Brothers had just come to an immediate and screeching halt.  There was no truce; only complete defeat: something accomplished by a successful frontal assault from a much larger army.  Considering the amount of collateral damage that had occurred earlier in the day, it was nothing short of a miracle there was to be only two casualties; one minor, and one potentially fatal.


It was almost ten o’clock when Murdoch returned to the Great Room.  Scott watched from the couch as his father poured himself a tumbler of Talisker’s, saying nothing until the big man settled into the easy chair beside the hearth.  “Sir?”

Murdoch took a sip of the scotch before responding.  “I would suggest, Scott, that you make no plans for the foreseeable future.  As I’ve already made quite plain to your brother, you are both going to be far too busy to get into any further mischief.”

End of discussion, Scott knew.  “If you’ll excuse me then, sir.”  He stood up.  “Good night, Murdoch.”

The older man nodded.  “Good night, son.”


Johnny recognized Scott’s knock and debated answering.  He wasn’t exactly feeling too social right now.  The Old Man had come down on him, hard; reminding him that it was his bringing home of the cubs had started the entire fiasco.  Whatever the Hell that was, he thought.  There hadn’t been any damned fiasco!!  Pissin’ contest, maybe, but sure in Hell no fuckin’ fiasco!  And as it stood right now  -- his plan with the coffee turnin’ into a royal screw up -- Big Brother was still ahead four to three.

“Johnny?”  Scott stepped lightly across the threshold; his eyes adjusting to the darkness.  The lamp beside his brother’s bed had been turned down to the point it was beginning to sputter.

“Don’t recall invitin’ you in.”

The disembodied voice came from the darkness beyond the bed; somewhere near the open window.  Scott shut the door behind him and headed toward the sound.  “And you didn’t acknowledge that I was even there.”  He shook his head, a tsk-tsk sound coming.  “You really need to work on your manners, little brother,” he scolded.

Johnny stepped out of the darkness.  “What’s a fiasco?” he demanded.

Scott pulled up short at the unexpected question.  “A cataclysm, catastrophe…”

“In fuckin’ English,” the younger man snapped.

“It would help, Johnny, if I knew who used the word, and in what context.”  Scott reasoned.

“The Old Man,” the brunet answered.  Johnny had picked up his pillow from the bed and was kneading it between his fingers.  “He said what was goin’ on between you and me was a fiasco.”

Scott’s eyes warmed, a wide smile creasing the skin at the corners.  “Oh,” he breathed.  “Our ill advised pissing contest.”  He was beside the bed now, opposite Johnny; picking up the spare pillow, the one that was generally used to prop up his brother’s injured limbs, or to help him to sit up.  Fluffing the down-filled cushion, he ran his fingers along the edge.  “I’m sure -- from our father’s perspective -- the entire matter has been viewed as yet another misadventure of his willful, disrespectful and disobedient sons.”

“Ya forgot to add delinquent,” the younger man laughed, remembering the lecture.   He shifted his fingers until he was grasping the pillow he was holding by the open edge of the crisp casing, one knee resting on the bed as he gathered the pillowcase in his right fist.  Suddenly, he swung the thick down cushion; the pillow connecting with his brother’s head.

Scott retaliated in kind, a soft oomph coming as he delivered a stout blow to Johnny’s left shoulder.  His younger brother deftly avoided a second strike; tuck and rolling across the bed to land like a cat on his feet slightly behind his elder sibling.  Before Scott could turn, a two-handed sweep of his brother’s pillow landed solidly between his shoulders, and he danced away.

Between the laughing and the scuffling, the majority of the blows landed against the walls and the floor other than on the combatants, but neither young man was about to yield.   Scott reached out just in time to save the porcelain wash basin and pitcher atop Johnny’s dresser; and the younger Lancer, taking coup, just as quickly straightened the picture he had just knocked off center.

Just when and which pillow first split open was something neither young man could attest to.  Suddenly, an updraft of air from the almost constant sweep of weapons created a goose down blizzard that whirl-pooled in the center of the room.  Instantly, the play stopped.  “Oh, fuck,” Johnny breathed.

“Precisely,” Scott snorted.  Then, his head canting slightly, one finger pressed to his lips, “Murdoch.”

Johnny heard the slow thump-bump of his father’s boots as the big man came up the stairs.  “Jesus, Scott, we ain’t got a chance in Hell of gettin’ this cleaned up before…”

Scott headed for the door, opening it quickly and stepping through.  He pulled the door shut just as his father entered the hallway and remained standing against it, his right hand behind him and still clutching the knob.  “Sir,” he greeted amicably.

Murdoch stopped mid stride.  “Son,” he returned.  His eyes narrowed slightly as he spied a white feather atop Scott’s right ear and he reached out to retrieve it.

Scott pretended he hadn’t seen his father’s move, or the feather.  “I was just saying goodnight to Johnny,” he smiled.  “He’s already asleep.”

It was, Murdoch knew, a bald faced lie.  The younger man didn’t even have the good grace to hide the smile.  “Asleep,” he echoed. 

“Yes, sir,” the blond answered.  The grin widened.

Murdoch stood, hands behind his back, rocking gently back and forth on his heels and toes.  Looking down at his son, he was reminded of that night, so long ago, when -- as a six year old -- Scott had looked up at him with a face totally devoid of any guile.   It was, he thought, a gift; the talent both his sons had for looking completely innocent, usually when they were up to no good.

He decided he was going to let it go.  Whatever havoc was beyond his younger son’s bedroom door, he was just going to let it go.  For now.  “Goodnight, then,” he said, and continued down the hallway.

Scott collapsed against the door, feeling a sudden rush of relief as he watched his father disappear into the big bedroom at the end of the hallway.  Suddenly, he felt himself losing his balance, the door opening behind him; and the next thing he knew, Johnny had grabbed his arm and yanked him through the opening.

“You told ‘im I was asleep?” the younger man snorted.

“Yes,” the blond answered; giving in to the need to laugh. 

Johnny waded through the feathers and collapsed backwards on to his bed.  He, too, was laughing.  He patted the mattress next to him, watching as his brother fell down beside him; both young men looking up at the ceiling and watching the diminishing snowfall of fine down.  “We still ain’t even,” he said finally.  “Score’s four to three.”

“Give it up, little brother,” Scott advised, punching the younger man’s shoulder with a single, bent knuckle.  “Murdoch knew I was lying to him, Johnny.  I don’t know why he let it pass; but I do know it would be a big mistake to underestimate our father.”  This time the punch was a bit more solid.  “I’ll gladly play with you, little brother, anytime;” the blond declared, waving a casual hand at the chaos that surrounded them, “but the pissing contest is over.”

Johnny thought about it, but for only a moment.  “You know it ain’t in my nature to lose, Scott,” he whispered.  The lopsided grin appeared as his head rocked back and forth against the mattress.  “I like all this plottin’ and plannin’…”

Scott propped himself up on one elbow, his tone changing; more big-brotherly than comrade-at-arms.  “I’m quite familiar with your plans, little brother.  If you would care to remember, one of those…plans…ended with you confined to this very bed with a bullet in your back.”  He smacked the younger man’s belly with the flat of his hand.

“Hey!”  The grin suddenly turned downward in a petulant pout.  “I got Pardee here, didn’t I?” he asked indignantly.  “Got you a clean shot at him…”

Scott levered himself up off the bed.  He turned, facing his brother.  “We are done,” he said.  “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll even concede.  But no…more…pranks.”

Johnny waved a limp hand at his brother.  “Whatever,” he muttered.

Giving up, the elder brother shook his head.  He started to speak again, only to change his mind as he realized -- despite his brother’s strange position, half on, half off the bed -- Johnny was asleep.  As he had done on other occasions in the past, Scott repositioned the young man on the mattress and covered him up.  “Sleep well, baby brother,” he whispered.  “And tomorrow, at least try to be good.”


Somehow, Scott marveled, Johnny had not only managed to clean up the feathers from the bedroom floor, he had also managed to sweet talk Consuela into restuffing the pillows and stitching them shut.  It was, he thought, a good start to a good day.

And then the letter arrived.  The one from Harlan Garrett’s attorney.

Murdoch’s face became a kaleidoscope of color, blanching almost pure white beneath the tan before rapidly changing to varying shades of plum.  “Do you have any idea what this is?” he growled, waving the offending document beneath Johnny’s nose.

Johnny hadn’t recognized the return address.  “Invite to a party?” he asked through a mouthful of biscuit.  He licked the honey from his fingers and reached out; only to have the paper snatched from his fingers by his elder brother.

Scott read through the letter, and then turned the page to scan the attached itemized invoice.   “It’s a bill,” he said quietly.  “From Grandfather.  For damages to his trunk, his clothing…”  Pale eyes lifted to survey his younger brother; Scott’s expression unreadable.  “…the railway car.  Amongst other things.”  He refolded the letter and handed it back to his father.

“How much?”  Johnny put the remainder of his biscuit back on his plate.  Somehow he wasn’t quite so hungry.

“Fifteen hundred dollars,” Murdoch answered curtly.  The words came from between clenched teeth.

Johnny debated for a short moment, turning to face his father; his right eyebrow cocking as he opened his mouth and started to speak.  Before he could say one word, Scott slumped down in his chair just long enough to kick him in the shin.  “Damn it, Boston!”

“Just shut up, Johnny,” Scott warned; sensing his brother’s cavalier mood.  It was clear from his expression he was not joking.  He turned his attention back to his father.  “I’ll take care of the bill, Murdoch; one way or another.”

The brunet was frowning.  He was also rubbing his shin.  “Don’t know what’s such a fuckin’ big deal,” he groused.  “Just need to put ol’ Johnny Madrid back to work for a while; let him settle the bill.”  He grinned.  “One way or another.”   

Neither Scott nor Murdoch was amused.  They chose to ignore the youth’s brazen attempt at dark humor.  Murdoch rose up from his chair.  “I’m responsible for your brother and his little peccadilloes, Scott.  We’ll discuss this later, when I get back from Aggie’s.”  The delivery of the seed bull had been delayed by the early spring storms; but the animal had finally arrived.

Johnny shoved back his chair.  Aggie again, he fumed.  “I’ll help with the bull,” he offered.

Adamant, the big rancher shook his head.  “You will not,” he declared.  “I thought I made it perfectly clear when I talked to you last night.  You and your brother will be spending the next several weeks working your due here at Lancer.  No little excursions to the neighbors, and certainly none into town.  The matter is no longer open for discussion.”  With that, the tall Scot headed toward the hallway.

“‘The matter is no longer open for discussion,’” the dark-haired one mimicked.

Scott reached out, boxing his brother’s ears.  “Will you just stop it?” he implored.  In spite of himself, he was finding it difficult to keep a straight face.  The crack about putting Johnny Madrid back to work had just about nudged their father over the edge.

Johnny picked up his hat from where it had been hanging on the back of his chair.  “This is how it works, Scott.  All I have to do it get him pissed off enough that he kicks us out…”

Open-mouthed, Scott stared at his younger brother, unable -- unwilling -- to even attempt to grasp the boy’s skewed logic.  “May I remind you, little brother, that our father not only spent a considerable sum of money looking for you, but that he also actually paid you to come here, as well as making a considerable investment in keeping you patched up?  What on God’s green earth makes you think you can possibly make him angry enough…

“Scott?”  Murdoch was calling from the Great Room.  “Have you seen that Robert Burns book Aggie loaned me?  I want to take it back to her.”

Johnny’s jaw dropped, his eyes opening wide; the sapphire orbs lit by a peculiar fire.  “That wasn’t your book?” he croaked.

“On the drink table, sir,” Scott shouted, his eyes locked on his brother’s.  “I brought it down from my room last night after you went to bed!”  His voice lowered as he answered his brother’s question.  “No.  Aggie brought him the book the day she rode over here with Caroline.”

Johnny shoved the Stetson down low on his head.  Turning on his heel, he headed for the hallway; changing his mind as he heard his father’s footsteps.  He made another about-face and quickly disappeared through the kitchen door.

Murdoch came back into the kitchen.  He was holding the leather-bound book of poetry in his large hands, attempting to thumb through the pages; his fingers coming away tacky.

Scott inhaled deeply, lifting his left hand to pinch the bridge of his nose; the place where the headache was just beginning.  The good day he had anticipated on rising had just gone completely to Hell.  He answered his father’s question before the man even asked it.  “Gone,” he said, pointing to the back door.


Johnny watched from the dark shadows beside the guard house as his father and Frank rode off; the two men heading for the spur track that stopped just short of Lancer’s eastern-most border.   He waited until they were beyond the arch to join his brother at the door to the barn.

Scott had just mounted Remmie.  He stood up in the saddle; rocking as he tested his seat.  Shaking his head, he dismounted.  The gelding had sucked in a belly full of air just as the man had tightened the cinch; enough that there was give.  Scott rewarded the horse with a knee in the gut; pulling the cinch tighter when the animal expelled the excess air.  “Glue?” he asked, knowing his brother was standing just behind him.

The younger man was drawing circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot.  “Thought it was your book,” he muttered.

“‘The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley’” Scott breathed, relacing the leathers.  

“What?” Johnny snapped, an edge to his voice.  There were times when he hated the unwanted lessons his brother was always dishing out: language, history; his fucking opinions.  

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry -- wrong,” Scott answered.  “It’s a quote from a poem by Robert Burns; The Mouse.”  He turned, facing the younger man.  “About page three in that book Aggie loaned Murdoch.”  Carefully, he began putting on his gloves, working the stitched leather into place as he laced his fingers together.  “Pretty apt description of your recent foul-up, don’t you think?”  One of the things he had missed most during his internment at Libby had been the extensive collection of first editions in his Grandfather’s library.  The experience had left him with a renewed respect for books in any form, and he treated them accordingly.

“What the fuck’s got the burr under your saddle?”  Johnny shot back.

Scott turned away, placing his left boot in the stirrup and swinging up into the saddle.  “Give it some thought, Johnny.  Maybe in a day or two you’ll figure it out.”  He urged the gelding into a trot and headed out.

“Piss on you!!” The younger man shouted.  Barranca bolted; just enough that Johnny had to vault into the saddle before the palomino took off to follow behind its stable mate.

They worked together in silence until Johnny couldn’t take it anymore.  He tossed the fencing tool into the bucket.  “Okay.”  Inhaling; he took a quick breath, slowly letting it out before he continued.  “I shouldn’t ‘a pasted the pages of the book together.”

Scott plunged the post-hole digger into the rocky soil before responding.  Like his brother, he was shirtless; grateful they were working within the shade of a line of cottonwoods.  “Is that supposed to be an apology?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his upper lip and hiding the smile.  “Because if it is, and it’s the one you plan on using on our father and Aggie, it needs some work.”

Johnny walked over to where Barranca was ground hitched next to Remmie.  He reached up, lifting the canteen from where it had been hanging from his saddle horn.  Pulling the stopper, he took a long drink of the tepid water before handing the container off to his brother.  “So how pissed do you think he’s going to be?” he asked.

The blond was still smiling.  He wondered how many times his brother had asked him the same question in the past few months.  “You know how he told us we shouldn’t be making any plans for the ‘foreseeable future’?”  Johnny nodded his head.  Scott lifted the canteen, taking a long drink before he continued.  “I don’t think we have a future,” he lamented, “foreseeable or otherwise.”

Johnny considered his brother’s words.  “I’m the one that used the glue,” he confessed.  “I’ll tell ‘im it was me.” 

Scott laughed.  “Thank you.  Not that it’s going to make any difference.”  He handed the canteen back to his brother, watching as the younger man dumped the rest of the contents over his head; wetting his hair.  When he saw the question in his younger brother’s eyes, he explained.  “It turns out Murdoch has a book of rules, too,” he announced, “a Father’s Book of Rules.  I’m sure he’ll find one that declares the eldest son is always at least partly to blame for whatever the youngest son does.”  He reached out, tapping his Johnny’s still damp cheek with his open hand.  “I am supposed to set a good example, you know.”

The brunet’s eyes were dancing.  “You could take me to a whore house; show me how it’s done,” he ventured.

“I’ll put that on my list,” the older man snorted. “Right up there with how to dig a proper post hole, string a length of wire,” he winked, “which spoon to use with your soup…”

Together, the two brothers resumed their jobs.  The schedule for the next month remained much the same, their father true to his word regarding how busy they would be.  Both young men worked from sun up to sundown.  Even their weekends were filled with the mundane: Scott assigned to the bookwork, Johnny reluctantly learning the difference between a debit and a credit, and when he got too sassy, just how many windows there were to wash and dishes to dry.  The only ray of sunshine came when Maria recovered from her cold and was finally able to cook.


Val Crawford stood with his forearm resting atop the batwing doors outside of the Silver Dollar saloon, his dark eyes taking in what had been an unfamiliar sight.  After weeks of rigidly enforced restrictions imposed by Murdoch, Scott and Johnny had finally been turned loose in Green River; and the Lancer boys were making up for lost time.  Well, one of them, anyway, he grinned.

Shaking his head, the lawman pushed the twin doors open and began the trip across the room to the table in the far corner; making no attempt to avoid the drunken cowhands that were sprawled out on the floor.  Lancer hands, he mused; two of the younger ones who palled around with Johnny, and Charlie Fletcher who was a bit older and usually had more sense.  He nodded a single time as he approached the table.  “Scott,” he greeted quietly. 

Scott was sitting with his Stetson shoved far back on his head, his long legs extended beneath the table: remarkably calm and relaxed, and a hell of a lot more sober than his companion.  Across from him sat his younger brother, Johnny; his face flushed from the amount of tequila he had consumed; the sapphire blue eyes dancing.  It was obvious the younger man was feeling no pain. 

Shit-faced drunk, Val noted:  so drunk that the young man was paying no attention to what was going on around him; not to the gaudily dressed young woman who was nibbling on his ear (Johnny had just swatted at her as if she were a particularly persistent mosquito), or the three Lancer hands that were passed out on the floor.  The lawman reached out, grabbing -- midair -- the silver dollar Johnny was attempting to flip into the full shot glass of whisky sitting dead center on the table.  His fingers closed around the coin.  “You about done?” he asked, pocketing the dollar.

Johnny’s eyes opened wide as he tried to focus.  He turned to face the lawman, about to rebuke him for swiping the coin, and changed his mind.  Damned, he thought; never knew Val had a twin brother!!  He blinked and swung his gaze to his elder brother, intending to share the news when he noticed that Scott, too, had a twin!!  Giggling, he shook a finger at his siblings.  “What’s ‘is name?” he asked, pointing at his brother’s mirror twin.

Scott -- who had mastered the shot-glass game when he was in the Army -- was markedly more sober than his younger brother.  There was only one Johnny, although he was becoming a bit fuzzy.  “Val,” he answered solemnly, indicating the sheriff with a nod of his head.

Johnny slid down farther in his chair; as if he were sitting in a puddle of butter.  “Not him, you jackass!” he laughed.  He turned his head again, rubbing his right eye a bit as he gawked up at Val’s twin brother.  “Jesus,” he muttered; although he was pretty sure that Val wouldn’t have a brother who was named after the baby in the manger.  Looking about the room, he saw a whole passel of twins; everywhere.  Even the tables and chairs appeared to have matching mates.

If it wasn’t for the fact it was a Saturday night -- a particularly busy Saturday night -- Val would have been amused.  As it was, he had long since passed the point where he found anything funny about a saloon full of drunken cowhands.  “Jail, or home?” he asked.

Johnny had to think about that one.  Murdoch had been pretty -- well, loud -- when he had finally relented and agreed to let him and Scott come into town.  He’d also been pretty vocal about how he expected his sons to behave: which included an order (and that’s what it had been) that they were to return home sober; and at a reasonable hour.

The Old Man had also told them the doors would be locked precisely at midnight.

“Hey, Scott?”  Johnny almost whispered the words, and he still had to keep one eye closed to make sure he was looking at his real brother; and not the fast-fading twin.

“Yes, little brother?” the blond answered cordially. 

“What time is it?”  Johnny reached out to snag the still-full shot glass and abruptly changed his mind as his stomach did a flip-flop.

Scott’s right eyebrow arched.  He hadn’t expected the question; mainly because it hadn’t been that long since the last time Johnny had asked and he had dutifully reminded his baby brother that they were not going to make it home before the doors were locked.  He grinned and took out his watch.  “Let’s see,” he replied, “the little hand is on the one,” he tapped the crystal with his extended forefinger in time to the ticks, waiting, “and the big hand is on the twelve.”

Johnny swallowed; hard.  Even pushing Barranca, it was a good half-hour ride home; and that was when he was sober.  “Jail,” he said, turning a pleading eye on the lawman.

Val stared down at his young friend; laughing when he realized the youth was serious.  “Changed my mind about the offer,” he said affably.  He reached out, grabbing the younger man by the collar.  “You’re goin’ home, boy.”  Johnny’s legs were like jelly when he lifted him out of the chair.  His voice rose substantially as he saw the other Lancer hands beginning to come around.  “You’re all going home.  Now.”

Scott shoved back his chair and stood up.  Two things he had learned in the time he had known Val Crawford: the lawman was not to be trifled with when he was doing his job, and when he said the word now, he meant right now.   Pulling on his gloves, he bent down slightly to tap Charlie Fletcher on the shoulder.  Of the three hands that were still trying to hold down the floor, Charlie looked the most aware.  “Are you feeling well enough to drive the wagon, Charlie?” he asked; careful not to talk too loud.

The older man grunted.  One month shy of his thirtieth birthday, the lanky redhead only occasionally imbibed to the point where he actually got intoxicated.  He also had an uncanny ability to sober up at the drop of a hat.  “Sure, Scott,” he answered.  He jabbed a finger at his companions.  “They get sick on the way home they gotta clean up the mess.”  Then, his brow furrowing, “we still got two men,” -- he hesitated -- “busy upstairs.”

Val laughed.  Passed out upstairs,” he corrected.  Still holding on to Johnny, the sheriff called out to his deputy.  “Ty!”  A single nod in the direction of the stairs that flanked the far wall was all that was needed.  He turned his gaze back to the elder Lancer brother; doing a quick appraisal of the man’s posture and countenance.  Scott was a hell of a lot more sober than he had been letting on.  “You figure on the two of you ridin’ home?” he asked.

Scott grinned across at the man.  “Are you contemplating loading him into a wagon?” he asked, pointing to his younger brother.

Johnny’s head came up suddenly; so suddenly his hat fell off to be held in place against his back by the storm strings.  “That ain’t happenin’!” he snorted.  “Barranca an’ me will do just fine!”

“Barranca hasn’t been drinking,” Scott observed drolly. 

“Shows what you know!” Johnny argued.  “Him and me had a beer, soon as we got to town.”  He tried to pull away from Val only to find the lawman was not letting go. 

“That was six hours ago, Johnny,” Scott chided.  “You’ve been drinking non-stop since we arrived in town, and…”

“Wasn’t drinkin’ when I went upstairs,” the dark-haired youth drawled.

Scott was heading towards the door.  “Well, that takes care of the first fifteen minutes,” he scoffed; sidestepping his brother as the younger man took a swing at his head.

Enjoying the banter between the brothers, Val tugged Johnny along and followed Scott out of the door.  “Guess he’s wise to you, Johnny,” he joshed.  Johnny’s reputation with the ladies was not completely unknown to the lawman.  The youth, for all his bravado, was not a wanton womanizer; he had a tendency, instead, to fall in love, generally preferring romancing to rutting: all too often getting hurt in the process.

Johnny called out to his elder brother.  “Fifteen minutes, my ass!” he groused; his pride smarting.  “Besides, big brother, you’re the one always tellin’ me it ain’t the quantity of the time you spend, it’s the quality of the performance!!”  He felt Val let go and barged through the door to catch up with his sibling.  “You didn’t even make it upstairs,” he jibed.   He was on a roll, and he knew it.  “Hell,” he snorted, “all you did was waste your time playin’ that stupid shot glass game…”

Scott was laughing.  “I won all your money, brother,” he shot back; jingling the small pouch of coins he had just looped to his belt.  “That reminds me, you still owe me for that little trip you took upstairs!”

Johnny stepped down into the street; the impact surprising him as he miscalculated the distance between the boardwalk and the roadway.  He sucked in his belly and dug into his pockets.  It was the first of the month, and they were empty; completely empty!  “Hey, brother!” he called, “I’m kinda hungry, ya know!  How ‘bout buyin’ me an early breakfast?”  Behind him, he heard Val laughing.

Scott just shook his head.  He watched as Charlie Fletcher and Val’s deputy, Ty Underwood, loaded the Lancer crew into the supply wagon, and seriously considered tossing his brother atop the others; and then changed his mind.  There was no way he was going to deal with leading a peevish Barranca home to an even crankier Johnny.


His brother was hanging back, and Scott knew the reasons why: the fact the wagon load of ranch hands had already passed them by; and the two beef laden tamales he had charmed out of the stableman’s young wife.  Not only had Johnny been sick twice on the ride home -- something that had turned a forty-five minute trip into a two hour stop and go sojourn -- the younger man was belatedly regretting his long night of partying.  Not that he would ever admit it. 

The moon was beginning to wane; and Scott reckoned the time at close to three a.m.  He reined in; waiting for Barranca to catch up.  “Are you all right?” he asked as his brother.

The younger man nodded.  They had just ridden beneath the arch and he was staring straight ahead.  “Shit,” he muttered.  “Light’s on in the Great Room.”

“I oiled the hinges on the front door,” Scott announced; grinning across at his brother.

Johnny’s head lifted.  “What?”  And what the Hell did oiling the hinges have to do with a light being on?

Nudging Remmie, Scott resumed their trek.  “This afternoon, when Murdoch was working at the forge.”  He laughed, softly.  “By now,” he continued, “Murdoch’s sound asleep in his chair beside the fire place.  All we have to do is take off our boots --” he jabbed a long finger at his brother’s left foot, “and spurs.  We’ll unlock the door, sneak up the stairs, and go to bed.  He’ll never know the difference.”  He said the words with a great deal of authority; as if he had actually done the deed on a previous occasion.

The younger man moved up to ride stirrup to stirrup with his brother.  While he liked Scott’s words and the idea his elder brother had actually sinned at some point in his recent past, he was still suspicious.  “He’ll ask us when we got in,” he reasoned.  “When we show up at the breakfast table; he’s gonna ask us right off what time we got in.”

“And we’ll tell him,” Scott said.  The easy laughter came again.  “Early.”  He reached out, grasping his brother’s shoulder and giving it a slight shake.  “It’s not like we’d be telling him a lie,” he teased.  “It is…early.

They had reached the barn, and Johnny swung down from Barranca; shooting a quick look at the front door of the hacienda before leading the palomino into the stable.  “And if he don’t buy it?” he ventured.

“Trust me, brother,” Scott answered.  “Just follow my lead, and we’ll be fine; just fine.”  He led Remmie into the stall and quickly began unsaddling the horse.

“Heard that before,” Johnny groused, pulling the cinch straps loose.  He lifted Barranca’s saddle away from the animal’s back; pulling the damp blanket free and spreading it across a bale of straw.  He turned the saddle up on its end; exposing the underside, his fingers caressing the soft fleece.  “Guess we might as well let ‘er buck…”

Scott looped a long arm around his younger brother’s shoulder.  “Take off your spurs,” he reminded, “and give me the key.”

They had just stepped across the barn’s threshold.  Johnny pulled up short.  “What key?” he demanded.

The blond felt himself suddenly held back by his brother’s abrupt stop.  “The key to the front door,” he answered.

“Don’t have a key,” Johnny muttered. 

Scott was rubbing his forehead with the two forefingers of his right hand; just where the pain was starting.  “I gave you a key this morning.  Where is it?”

Johnny’s lips pursed slightly.  He didn’t like where this was going.  “In my shirt pocket.”

Relieved, the blond exhaled.  “So what’s the problem?”  Expectant, he held out his hand.

Other shirt,” the younger man answered hotly; the words coming in a hoarse whisper.  “Hey!!  You were the one that told me I had to change clothes before we went to town!”

Scott was shaking his head.  “Don’t shout!” he murmured, keeping his own voice low.  He crooked a finger at his brother and started walking -- slinking -- towards the house.

Johnny reached out, noting the way his brother jumped as he tapped his shoulder.  “Why can’t we use your key?” he asked.

“Take a good look at my pants,” the older man ordered; the fingers of his right hand brushing against his thigh, then moving gingerly to his compact rear-end.  “Does it look like I’m carrying any keys?”

Johnny was smirking.  Scott’s new britches were tighter than usual; something he had mentioned several times to his brother before they left for town.  He shrugged, tapping his own butt.  “Why do you think I put the key in my shirt pocket?”  He grinned.  “Don’t have room for much more than the family jewels in these,” he declared, bragging and not feeling the least bit ashamed; his fingers slapping against the form-fitting leather calzoneras.

“Your other shirt pocket,” Scott groused accusingly; “the one that is, undoubtedly, lying on your bedroom floor!”  He was speaking even more softly now as they approached the front door; in fact, had paused to take off his boots.  Just in case.

The younger man followed suit; laughing a bit as he almost lost his balance.  He reached out, grabbing Scott’s arm, the words coming whisky hoarse.  “C’mon, brother!  Quit kiddin’ around.  Just use your fuckin’ key; you know you got it!”  Scott was always tryin’ to teach him lessons; teach him responsibility.  Like carrying a key, or puttin’ his money in a bank; or pickin’ up his laundry and matchin’ up his socks.

“I…don’t…have…my…key!” Scott hissed.

Johnny pulled away from his brother.  “Well, that’s pretty dumb!  Why not?”

Scott’s stockinged feet slipped silently across the tiled patio.  “Since I planned on being home on time, I didn’t think I’d need it,” he answered.  “And you were supposed to be carrying your key.”

“Why?”  The younger man was leaning against the door jamb; arms folded, his tone belligerent.

The blond took off his hat and raked his long fingers through his hair; pausing a bit as if he were about to yank it out by the roots.  “Because I had this sneaking suspicion,” he began, something accusatory in his tone, “you would blatantly ignore what our father said and purposely forget to come home on time.  I knew you would need your key.” 

“So?”  Johnny was thoroughly unrepentant.  It was his job, ignoring their father, and he was good at it.  Like Scott didn’t know that.  “You could have left any time, you know; you so fuckin’ worried about bein’ late.”  He didn’t even make an effort to hide the sarcasm.

Scott was bending over Maria’s flower pot; the one beside the door.  As hard as it was to remain calm, he was trying.  “May I remind you, little brother,” he grunted, gritting his teeth as he tipped the heavy pot backwards a bit, “of the last thing Murdoch said as we went out the door.”  He didn’t wait for his brother to respond.  “‘Make sure your brother behaves, Scott, and that he gets home at a decent hour.’”

Johnny actually had the balls to laugh; but not too loudly.  “Hell, Boston, he’s always sayin’ that!  It’s not like he means it, for Christ’s sake!”

Scott snorted.  “Really.”  It wasn’t a question.  “Light a match,” he ordered.

In spite of his instinct to do otherwise, Johnny did as he was told.  “Watcha lookin’ for?” he whispered, leaning forward; covering the match with his cupped hand.

“Unlike some people,” Scott mumbled, tipping the pot even farther back, “I prepare for emergencies.”  His right hand disappeared under the pot and he made a series of back and forth sweeps with his fingers.  “I hid a key here, just in case.”

Johnny blew out the match.  “It ain’t there,” he muttered, his shoulders drooping.

Scott’s fingers stilled.  “What the hell do you mean, ‘it ain’t there’?” he demanded.

“I saw you hide it,” the younger man answered.  “I gave it to Jelly.”

The blond eased the flower pot back into place.  It was getting harder and harder to hold on to his temper, or to keep his voice under control.  “Jelly?” he seethed.

Johnny was sitting back on his haunches, his white stockings vivid against the dark tile and his darker pants.  “He was feelin’ bad,” he breathed.  “The man thinks of himself as family, Scott, and he was feelin’ left out not havin’ a key and all.”  He pointed at the pot.  “So I gave him one.”

Scott’s eyes closed.  He was counting to twenty in three languages; Latin, Greek and English; not sober enough to repeat the count in Spanish.  It wasn’t helping.  “Go get the key, little brother,” he ordered.

“You crazy!?” Johnny snorted.  “I wake up that old coot, and first thing he’ll do tomorrow mornin’ is tell the Old Man!  Part of the reason I gave him the key was ‘cause he was still pissed at me…”   Wisely, he shut up.

“Because of that that last ‘get even’ stunt you pulled?” the older brother finished.  In spite of Murdoch’s edict, Johnny had tried to even the score.  Once again, the planned stunt had gone wrong, and Jelly had ended up hanging suspended by one leg from a snare Johnny had rigged in the barn.

“Yeah.  Well it’s not like you didn’t do your part…” Johnny groused; remembering the boots his brother had somehow managed to nail to the floor.  Scott couldn’t stand being bested by his kid brother anymore than Johnny could handle being whupped by his elder.   

The blond was shaking his head.  After a brief reprieve, he and his brother had resumed their little war.  However, as the older, wiser, and more mature sibling, Scott had once more relented and ceased hostilities.  Not that Murdoch’s threats of great bodily injury hadn’t been an effective incentive.  “So how do you suggest we get into the house?” he asked.

“Tree,” Johnny answered.  Just the one word.


They were standing at the foot of the old oak tree in the courtyard, staring up into the thick branches.  The tree had just begun to bud.  Gingerly, Johnny stepped up onto the wide, circular bench at the oak’s base.  “Nothin’ to it,” he bragged.  “Trust me.”

“Trust you,” Scott muttered.  “I trusted you to carry your key.”

Johnny wiggled his fingers at his brother.  “C’mon, Scott,” he whispered.  “We climb the tree, get up on the roof, and,” he tried to snap his fingers but they were still numb from the tequila, “go in through your bedroom window.  Just like that.”

“‘Just like that,’” Scott echoed.  Unlike his sibling he was able to snap his fingers; something that was not lost on the younger man.  Unbelieving, he stepped up onto the bench.

“Hand me your boots,” Johnny whispered.  He jabbed a finger into the darkness above them.  “Need to stash them.  Squirrel’s nest.”

“These are new boots,” Scott reminded his brother; hesitant.

“Like you don’t have a half dozen more,” the younger man snorted.  “I’ll get ‘em later,” he promised.  “C’mon.  We drop ‘em, the Old Man will wake up for sure.”

Reluctantly, Scott gave up the boots.  He was beginning to seriously wish he’d stayed home.

They worked their way up the vast network of limbs and branches; both young men agile in their upward climb.  Scott looked down briefly as his sock snagged on a cluster of sucker growth sprouting from the oak’s trunk.  He jerked his foot a bit in an effort to free himself and then looked up to call out softly to his brother.  “Johnny…”


Scott found himself suddenly seeing stars as something solid smacked against his forehead.  When his vision cleared he was staring eye to eye at his brother.  Only Johnny was upside down.  “Johnny?” he whispered.

Johnny was swinging back and forth; lazily, like a kid hanging from his knees on a hitch rail.  He was looking decidedly green.  He lifted his hand to point to a place somewhere above him; changing his mind and quickly clamping his fist solidly across his mouth.  Scott watched as his brother rocked away from him and then swayed back.  Suddenly, the younger man barfed.  “Ooops.”

Scott smelled the peculiar odor of regurgitated tequila at the same time he felt the warmth splash against his chest.  “Feel better?” he asked through clenched teeth.

The younger man swayed away again and then back.  He belched.  “Some,” he answered truthfully.  “Give me a boost up, will ya?  I kinda slipped.”

Kinda,” Scott mocked.  He grabbed his brother’s shoulders and hefted him upright; struggling to hold onto him until the younger man regained a firm hold.  His hand on Johnny’s butt, he gave his sibling a slight push and then followed him up the forked branch.

Johnny was sitting with his legs dangling over the eaves when Scott pulled himself up over the edge of the roof.  He made a point of not looking down.  “See.  Told ya there’s nothin’ to it!”

Scott was scraping the remainder of his brother’s late night supper off the front of his dark blue shirt.  “Right.”  He looked up, past Johnny, visibly relieved to see that his bedroom window wasn’t actually that far away.  “Proceed,” he ordered.

Using both hands, Johnny shoved himself upright.  He put out his arms, balancing himself, and then began the diagonal climb across the curved roofing tiles.  Instinctively, he curled his toes for added grip; wincing a bit as the long muscle in his right leg cramped.  “Shit!” he murmured.

The elder Lancer was having his own problems.  The convex tiles were slicker than he had first assumed, and for a brief moment he was very glad the roofs and balconies in Boston had been made of grainier and flatter materials.  He shook the thought away, and followed his brother.

Johnny had reached the window.  He grabbed onto a vertical upright to steady himself, and then turned and lowered his head.  A tap on his right shoulder stopped him dead.  “What?”

“Me first,” Scott answered.  He moved to his brother’s side.  Something inside gnawed at him for a brief moment, and then logic -- what there was of it under the circumstances -- prevailed.  “My window,” he declared, “my room.  I’m claiming the right to go first.  Besides, I’m the eldest.”

Johnny never liked to be second at anything; especially when it came to even the smallest contests between him and his brother.  “We’ll toss for it,” he suggested, sucking in a bit as he dug into his front pocket.

“You don’t have any money,” Scott smirked; for the second time that evening giving the leather pouch holding his winnings a slight jingle.

“Loan me a dollar,” the younger man bargained.

“In your dreams,” the blond snorted; shaking his head at his brother’s nerve.  Resolutely, he turned toward the window; pausing a bit to access the situation.  In form -- because of his height -- he was actually longer and leaner than his compact sibling.  Johnny, he knew -- once the confession had finally been made -- had elected to go through the window head first.  Considering the horizontal bars at the top and the bottom, it didn’t seem like a bad idea.  It was simply a matter of sucking up, snaking through the bars, and dropping head first to the floor.  No big deal, he thought.  He had done more than his share of tuck and rolls; especially since coming to Lancer. 

Johnny watched as his brother worked his way through the iron uprights; sorely tempted to give him a swift kick in the ass.  What was it, he thought, about this big brother thing?  He grinned.  What was it that made it feel so good? 

The brunet watched as Scott disappeared through the bars, feeling proud when there was no sound at all from beyond the window.  A soft glow told him that Scott had lighted the bedside lamp; and he pressed his face against the bars.  “My turn now, brother?” he called softly.

Scott appeared at the window.  He had already removed his soiled shirt, his bare chest a stark contrast to his dark pants.  His face was bathed by the pale glimmer from the lamp he was holding, and he was grinning.  “You know how natural that looks,” he smiled, “your face peering at me from behind bars looking waif-like and winsome?”  Which was pretty much the way Johnny looked whenever Scott showed up to bail him out of Val’s jail.

Johnny frowned, his eyes narrowing.  “Waif-like and winsome, my ass,” he muttered, mentally making up his mind he’d have to perfect a new look the next time he needed Scott to buy him out of jail.  He gave it a shot.  This time the look was more little boy in need of big brother’s help than poor orphan child.  “Well?”

The blond bowed a bit, and gestured with an outstretched arm.  Johnny’s ability to turn on the charm never ceased to amaze him.  “Be my guest,” he offered and stood back.

Eagerly, Johnny stuck his left arm and shoulder through the bars, standing up on his tip toes as he pivoted a bit and started to wiggle his upper torso through the uprights.  Scott reached out to give him a hand; pulling at his arm a bit.  The younger man sucked in, aware that somehow this trip through the window was different than the last time; tighter. 

The thought was driven home when he felt one of the concho’s snag just as he tried shifting his hips to finish the slide through.  “Uh, Scott?”

Scott tightened his grip on his brother’s arm and pulled a bit harder.  It wasn’t working.  “It appears, little brother, you are stuck.”

“No fuckin’ shit!” the dark-haired youth cursed.  Stubbornly, he tried once again to wiggle loose.  No matter what he tried, he couldn’t shake himself free.

“Try backing out,” Scott suggested.  He put down the lamp and gave his brother’s shoulders a two-handed nudge.

“Ouch!”  Johnny swatted his brother’s hands away as he felt a twinge just above his belt buckle as his skin was pinched against the rigid bar at his right side.

Scott stood back; his nimble mind formulating a plan.  He reached out, trying to work his brother’s belt right hand belt buckle loose.  “Try sucking in,” he encouraged.

“You try sucking in, asshole!” the younger man groused as he continued to struggle.

“Temper, temper,” Scott admonished.  He bit his lower lip; feeling a degree of panic over their situation, but also still tipsy enough to find humor in the absurdity of what was occurring, Johnny hanging half in, half out of the window.  Reaching his arms out through the windows, he fiddled with the conchos on his brother’s pants; hoping if he could remove the youth’s calzoneras, Johnny would be able to work himself free.  The dilemma was becoming alarmingly beyond control and in spite of his best efforts, Scott couldn’t stop the laughter anymore.

“This ain’t funny, Scott.”  Johnny was still trying to right himself.  No matter what he tried, he was unable to shuck his pants, and still wasn’t getting anywhere; mostly because his belly was not only sore, it wasn’t cooperating.  No matter how hard he tried to suck in his gut, he was aware of the small pot belly just below his waist band. 

Scott was doing yet another appraisal.  It dawned on him then; the real problem.  The long weeks they had been confined to the hacienda and its near environs under Murdoch’s watchful eye and supervision had kept the youth pretty much house-bound and doing a variety of piddling chores that had kept him way too close to Maria’s kitchen.  The boy constantly had food in his mouth.  

Johnny had, Scott observed, actually gained a little weight; not a lot because of his high level of energy, but certainly enough to now cause a problem.  Desperation began to claw at him, replacing caution and his usual common sense.  “I’m going to have to go downstairs, back outside, up the tree…” his brow furrowed, “up to the roof, and then…”

Johnny’s face brightened, and he used his hands to push himself up; enough that the blood wasn’t rushing to his head and numbing his brain. “…push me through!” he finished for his sibling.

Scott was shaking his head.  “I’m going to pull off your trousers so you can make it through on your own…” he held up his hand as his brother started to protest “…without Murdoch hearing anything.”  He stressed the last part.

Murdoch, Johnny thought, remembering the reason he was stuck in the window in the first place.  He was going to have a long talk with his Old Man about locking the damned doors when this was over!  “Well, brother,” he breathed.  “What you waitin’ for?”

“The commitment papers,” the blond grumbled.  Because that’s what he was going to need if Murdoch caught him: an insanity defense and a really good attorney.  He shook the thought away.  “Don’t go anywhere,” he ordered.  He didn’t wait to hear his brother’s response.


Scott paused at the top of the stairs; holding his breath as he listened for anything beyond the steady, seemingly magnified ticking of the Grandfather clock.  He canted his head, relieved to hear another sound; one he recognized as the soft sound of his father’s steady snoring.  Still in his stockinged feet, he carefully began his slow descent; one step at a time.  One creaky step at a time.

He finally made it to the front door; pausing just long enough to expel the air that had been trapped in his lungs when he had first started holding his breath at the top of the stairs.  Reaching out, he grabbed the door knob and gave it a slow turn.


The younger man’s shoulders slumped, his usually erect posture changing drastically as his hand dropped from the heavy brass knob.  “Sir?” he croaked.  Knowing he had no other choice, he turned around.

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed; a frown appearing as he appraised his eldest.  Eyes coming to rest on his son’s stockinged feet, the frown deepened.  “Planning on an early start to your day, son, or are you just getting in?”  In the background, the cursed clock tolled: one, two, three, four, five…

“Actually, sir,” Scott began, forcing a smile he didn’t quite feel; only to find himself rudely interrupted.

“Where is your brother?”

Scott’s eyes closed briefly.  “About Johnny…”  Suddenly, his mouth felt incredibly dry, and he licked his lips.

There was a noise; metal being worked in metal, and both Lancer men turned their attention to the door.  Scott actually found himself, in a moment of further insanity, hoping that Johnny had somehow worked himself free and had fetched the extra key from Jelly. 

That slim hope was dashed to pieces as Jelly himself stepped across the threshold.  His mouth was already going full bore, and he was brandishing the key he had just used.  “What’s that boy got hisself into now!” he groused.  “Got hisself stuck up there on the roof, his tail end stickin’ out o’ Scott’s window!!  That boy’s got no shame; tryin’ to sneak inta the house after you tellin’ him…”  He turned a harsh eye on the elder Lancer son, waving the key under his nose.  “How come you didn’t bring that boy home when you come?”

Scott reached out a long arm, grabbing the older man’s bony shoulder.  “Thank you, Jelly.  I can always count on you to point out the error of my ways and my shortcomings as Johnny’s big brother.”

“Don’t know what you’re mad at me for,” the handy man huffed.  “Ain’t my rear end that’s hangin’ outta your window!”

Murdoch’s face was a remarkable shade of red.  “Would you care to explain to me, Scott, what you’re brother…” he yielded to his temper, his voice rising “…what Johnny is doing on the roof?”

“He’s stuck,” the younger man answered.  Right about now a room in a private asylum for the mentally deranged was looking pretty good.  Unless, of course, he had to share it with his brother.  Accepting the inevitable, he continued.  “We arrived home after the doors were locked,” he confessed; purposely failing to admit to the time. 

The elder Lancer was grabbing his hat.  “You didn’t think to use your key?” he growled.

Scott shot a dark look at the handyman, whose hands were now clasped behind his back as he studiously gazed at the ceiling.  “I considered it, sir,” he answered; “but I found myself in need of the backup; which wasn’t there.”

Murdoch threw up his hands in disgust.  “You,” he said, jabbing a long finger at his son, “come with me.”


Johnny was still trying to find a way to get comfortable; finally settling on a position where his right arm was hooked through the bar, the majority of the weight of his upper body supported by his elbow and shoulder.  And then, doing what he did best when he was bored or hung over, he promptly fell asleep.


Scott stood back in unabashed awe as he watched his father.  Murdoch was stalking about the tool shed, issuing curt one-word orders and a series of unintelligible grunts at Jelly and Cip, who seemed to instinctively understand everything the big Scot was saying.  More than once, the elder Lancer son found himself doing a double quick-time to get out of the way.  And then, finally, everything was ready.

The sun was already peeping up from behind the mountains as the blond scurried to catch up with the three older men, who were trooping across the yard.  Murdoch was in the lead, carrying a folded, rubberized tarp and a crow bar; Cip and Jelly toting the twelve foot long wooden ladder.  All three men were grumbling; enough that the hands that were just beginning to assemble for the morning chores took one look at their grim countenances and beat a hasty retreat towards the barn and the corrals. 

But not before the majority of them had a good look at the hacienda’s patio roof; at what was sticking out of Scott’s bedroom window.  The sounds of restrained laughter and whispered “whooees” and “oh, boy, he’s done it again”’s drifted on the morning quiet before being lost amid the sudden noise of the world coming alive and the jingle of bridle chains and creak of saddle leather.

Scott was brought back to the here and now by Jelly’s noisy rantings.  The old man was strutting like a Banty rooster, voicing his loud opinions on everything from the current sorry state of the world to the even sorrier situation here at Lancer.  Specifically the bad behavior of the two Lancer offspring, who -- according to the old man -- didn’t have the good sense to pour piss out of a boot or come in out of a rain storm.

The blond took exception to the pour piss out of a boot remark.  Both he and Johnny were smart enough to perform that task, he mused.  And had on more than one occasion.  Working around cows had taught both young men the peculiarities of a bovine’s behavior and the animals seeming propensity for getting even; and the stray dogs Johnny was always bringing home had an uncanny aim when it came to marking their turf.  “Jelly,” he began, intending on calling the handy man to task for his grumblings.

Cip was guiding the ladder now; almost knocking both Scott and Jelly off their feet as he physically took control and placed the ladder against the edge of the roof.  The segundo was doing his own share of grumbling.  Scott’s eyebrows rose as heard the robust foreman voice his own opinion about Juanito and his blatant disrespect for his father; only to feel his own cheeks flushing as the big man cast a baleful look in his direction and muttered something about elder brother’s and their duty to provide a good example.

It was, Scott thought ruefully, going to be a very long day.

Resigned to what he knew was inevitable -- Murdoch’s wrath and Johnny’s displeasure -- he watched as his father began the climb to the roof.  Cip was steadying the ladder.  Jelly was doing his usual muttering; pretending he was talking to himself but speaking loud enough to wake the dead in two counties.  “Shoulda brought a tin’a paint and a brush,” the crotchety old-timer snorted, rocking up and down on his toes; his thumbs hooked in his suspenders.  “Paint a bright red bull’s eye on that boy’s behind; give his Pa somethin’ to aim for so’s he could get his attention!  Comin’ home at all hours, sneakin’ in like some…”

Scott cut the older man off with a single wave of his hand.  “Shut up, Jelly,” he ordered.

Murdoch was on the roof, spreading the tarp.  When he was finished he looked down at his elder son, saying nothing; pointing first to the crowbar Cipriano was holding and then making a curt up here gesture with his hand.  Scott stretched and exhaled; shaking his head.  Sidestepping Jelly, he nodded slightly to Cip before taking the proffered iron rod, and did as he was told.  It hit him suddenly, how much easier the climb up the ladder was then the one up the tree made in the dark earlier that same morning; and filed the information away.

The rubberized tarp, he found, was another good idea.  He joined his father on the roof, relieved there was solid footing against the slick tile.

Murdoch was standing, hands on hips, staring hard at his youngest.  Johnny, he observed, was asleep!  The young man’s breathing was surprisingly normal; soft, almost blissful snores coming as the youth’s right arm remained cocked at his elbow and locked around one of the vertical bars, like an exhausted toddler hanging half-in, half-out of his crib.  Resisting the urge to swat the boy’s behind, Murdoch made the short trip up the incline; Scott close behind.

Aware someone was behind him, Johnny came awake slowly and dragged his left hand across his face; aware of an intense tingle in his right hand.  “‘Bout time, brother,” he murmured without looking up.  “You got this thing figured out?”

“Not precisely,” the soft answer came; Scott’s deep baritone strangely subdued.

Johnny withdrew his arm from the upright, using both hands to rake his fingers through his dark curls.  His gaze settled on the carpet; on the small ray of sunlight that was beginning its slow crawl toward the opposite wall.  “Hey!” he snorted, pushing himself as upright as he could.  “We’re burnin’ daylight here!”  And then, “Come on, Scott.  I gotta get outta here before the Old Man wakes up!”

“The Old Man,” Murdoch growled, “is awake.”

The youth visibly shrank.  “Oh, shit,” he breathed, collapsing against the interior wall.  He turned his head slightly and, out of the corner of his eye, saw his father’s huge hands lock around the two iron rods that held him pinioned against the window’s ledge.

Scott half-heartedly offered his father the crowbar, his mouth dropping open as the big Scot set his feet and pulled.  The muscle’s in the older man’s neck and shoulders bunched beneath the dark shirt; solid and rock-like in both bulk and configuration.  Years working at the forge had honed the man’s upper torso; not one once of spare flesh evident in the broad shoulders and upper arms.  Scott found himself thinking of Longfellow’s poem, The Village Blacksmith; how apropos the opening lines were at this very moment: 

Under the spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands.

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands.

There was a series of slight sounds; the surprisingly muted groan of metal yielding to great pressure and the lesser noise of plaster giving way as Murdoch pulled the two vertical bars away from Johnny’s body.   The only other sound was a hushed intake of breath as Murdoch pulled his hands away from the bar to flex his fingers.

For a brief -- a very brief -- moment, Johnny relished his new-found ability to move.  He debated backing out of the window and then just as quickly decided, with Murdoch standing right behind him, that a wiser course of action would be to let gravity prevail.  Dropping headfirst through the window, he compacted his body to hit the carpeted floor shoulder first as he tucked and rolled; using the momentum to not only complete the somersault but to bring himself to his feet.  His plan was to make it across the room, out the bedroom door and down the back stairs; preferably before his father got off the roof.

“Oh, no you don’t, boy!” Murdoch bellowed.  “You stay right where you are!!”

Johnny winced and immediately stopped dead in his tracks, as if he were a boy again, playing stone tag, holding his pose so that he wouldn’t be called “it”.  He risked turning his head to take a long look at his father’s face; not liking what he was seeing; liking even less what he was seeing on Scott’s countenance, which was nothing.  You told, he mouthed, staring hard at brother.

Did not! His brother mouthed back.

Aware of the silent exchange between his sons, Murdoch once again wound his fingers around the iron uprights.  Bunching his shoulders, he pressed the bars back into their original position.  Finished, he turned to his eldest.  “Great Room,” he barked.  “Now!”

Scott backed up and executed a perfect about face, no easy thing considering where he was.  He marched to the edge of the roof; seriously debating jumping, giving up the thought as he realized he would probably only break his leg and not his neck.  Resigned, he stepped out onto the ladder and immediately made his retreat.

Drink in hand, he was in the Great Room when his father came through the door.  “Sir,” he greeted.

Murdoch’s frown deepened.  “A little hair of the dog?” he asked, making no effort to hide the sarcasm.

Scott downed the scotch in a single swallow.  He justified his action by the thought that somewhere in the world someone was having their evening brandy; silently wishing he could join them.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he murmured.  He put the glass upside down on the silver tray and waited.

“Fetch your brother,” his father ordered.

The blond shook his head a bit.  The three words Murdoch had just uttered ranked right up there with the much spoken where is your brother as Scott’s least favorite phrases.  “Yes, sir,” he sighed.


Scott opened the door to his bedroom, hesitating slightly as he realized his brother was standing in the precise spot where he had been when his father had ordered him to stay put.  “Sick?” he asked.

Johnny hitched up his pants; fastening the silver buckle at his right hip.  “No,” he answered.  “But I got a feelin’ I’m gonna be.”  He was fingering the conchos at his right thigh now.  “So how mad is he?”

The blond’s eyes narrowed a bit.  He had stopped by Johnny’s room just long enough to retrieve the younger man’s new boots, and handed them off.  “I’m not sure,” he answered, crossing the room to get his own footwear.  “He sent me to fetch you.”

Johnny’s mouth quirked up at the right hand corner; his expression almost a snarl.  “What am I?” he asked.  “A fuckin’ stick?”  He made a tossing gesture with his hand, “Fetch, boy,” he breathed.

“Are you implying I’m a dog?” Scott asked.  He was sitting on the bed, pulling on the riding boots he had worn that first full day at Lancer.

“Son-of-a-bitch, maybe,” the younger man groused.  “You told,” he accused.

“Did not!” the other shot back.  And then, standing up, he laughed.  “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “He caught me as I was going out the door, and then Jelly…”

Johnny finally turned to look his brother in the eye.  He was stomping into his own boots now, the new pair that still weren't properly broken in, cursing their tightness.  “Jelly what?” he asked.

“Used that key you gave him to open the door.  His mouth was going full bore when he crossed the threshold and he didn’t shut up until he told Murdoch exactly where you were.”  Scott was just realizing how angry he was with the old handy man.  There were times, he mused, when Jelly crossed -- violated -- the fragile line between blood relative and family friend; and this was certainly one of those occasions.

“Jelly,” Johnny repeated.  “I’m gonna kick that old man’s ass, he doesn’t keep out of my business.  Our business,” he amended.  While he genuinely liked the handy man most of the time, he didn't always appreciate the old fart's tendency to stick his nose in something that was none of his business.  Like when and where he was going, what he was doing; and how he chose to deal with his Old Man's long list of rules.  Suddenly reminded of his father, he cast a quick look at the window; noting the motes of disturbed plaster on the window's ledge; at the bottom of the center, vertical bars. 

“It was pretty impressive,” Scott observed, reading his brother’s mind.

“Bendin’ em out, or puttin’ em back like they were?”  Johnny breathed.  “Jeez, Scott.  I seen a lot in my time, but I ain't never seen nothin' like that before.”

A disembodied voice bellowed to them from the first floor.  “Boys!!”

Johnny visibly winced.  “So how long you think it’s gonna be this time?” he sighed.

Scott stepped out into the hallway, beckoning for his brother to join him.  “Before he lets us out to play again?”  He began the short trek down the hallway, his gait the same as if he was on a mission; militarily precise and in cadence.  “How long do you think our father is going to live?”

The brunet was dragging his feet.  “He’s too mean to die,” he grouched.  “We'll be toothless, bald-headed and pissin' our pants before he lets us outta the cage again...”  

Abruptly, Scott stopped; just at the head of the stairs.  “You know, little brother, you just described, perfectly, a little baby.  Did you ever consider that Murdoch would stop treating you,” he felt a need to amend his statement, “ -- us -- like a pair of infants if we would simply start behaving like responsible adults?”

Johnny was directly in front of his brother now.  “And just how much fun would that be?” he grinned; not the least bit repentant.


Scott sighed.  “A lot more amusing then what's about to transpire,” he noted.  He gestured for his brother to precede him down the stairway.

Not surprisingly, Johnny declined the offer.  “Age before beauty,” he joked; bowing a bit.

“Wisdom before folly,” Scott tossed back.  He led the way down the stairs; purposely ignoring the finger thump to the back of his head and the ensuing attempt to muss his hair.

They entered the wide door to the Great Room shoulder to shoulder and headed directly for their father's desk.  Johnny started to sit down, only to catch -- out of the corner of his eye -- Scott's single shake of his head.  As usual, Murdoch was seated in his massive leather chair, his back to his sons as he stared out the arched picture window.  When the big Scot turned around, his face was a mask of parental annoyance that gave only slightly as he noted that both young men were almost standing at attention.  “Sit,” he ordered.

They sat; Scott to his father's right, Johnny in his usual place in the chair to the man's left.  Unable to stop himself, the younger man addressed his sire.  “Don't start yellin',” he muttered.

Dumbfounded, Scott shot his younger brother a warning glance; not quite believing what he had just heard.  Talk about waving a red flag in front of an already enraged bull! he pondered. 

“What?” Murdoch growled; his gaze firmly locked on his youngest son.

Johnny was slouched down in the chair, his left leg bouncing a bit; his fingers busy working the silver conchos.  “Said don't yell,” he answered back.  “My head hurts.”

Scott's his eyes closed briefly, and he was shaking his head.  Recovering, he spoke to his father.  “Sir, about last night...”

Murdoch raised his right hand, effectively cutting off his eldest son's words.  “What time did you get in?” he asked.

Johnny realized his father was looking directly at him, and he cut his eyes to his brother, shooting Scott a help me out here, brother look before turning his gaze back to his father, and then to a spot on the floor directly in front of the desk. “Early,” he answered.

“Early,” the older man echoed.  He was silent for a long moment.  Then, unexpectedly, he stood up.  “I would suggest that the two of you get yourselves some breakfast and some strong coffee,” he announced.  “You have chores to do.”  With that, the big man headed toward the front door.

Scott waited until his father had left the room and then unfolded his lean frame and rose to his feet.  Johnny remained seated.  He looked up at his brother.  “That's it?” he asked.

The blond laughed; the sound filled with sardonic humor.  “No-o-o-o,” he drawled.  “That is definitely not it.  He headed for the kitchen, knowing his brother was right behind him. 

Johnny hustled over to the stove; his arms going around Maria's waist as he reached out to snatch a piece of bacon.  She smacked his fingers; hard enough that he reconsidered.  Empty handed he headed back to the table, sitting down across from his brother.  “Maybe he's mellowin',” he volunteered.

Scott had just taken a sip of coffee.  He put down the cup.  “Just how much did you drink last night?” he asked.

The younger man frowned.  Maria had just put his plate down in front of him; two runny, sunny-side up eggs, two strips of overcooked bacon and no biscuits.  “You're point bein'?”

“If you think our father has mellowed, you must still be drunk,” Scott snorted.  When his brother started to protest, he raised his hand.  “What we just witnessed,” he nodded in the general direction of the Great Room, “is the proverbial calm before the storm.  Our father will have his revenge,” he finished.  He smiled and pointed at his brother's plate, his next words coming whisper-soft.  “He's just going to be more devious about it than our lovely Maria.”

Before Johnny had a chance to respond, a tousled and bleary-eyed Teresa came into the room.  She went directly to the stove for a cup of coffee; smiling as Maria gave her the customary peck on the cheek.  Turning around, she stared at her adopted brothers over the brim of her mug.  “So he hasn't killed you,” she commented, making absolutely no effort to hide the smugness.

“Not yet,” Scott smiled, watching as the young woman took her place next to Johnny.  “But the day is young.”

Johnny took a long sidewise glance at his sister.  “And just what makes you think the Old Man's gonna kill us?” he growled.

Teresa smiled at him, sweetly.  “Not just Murdoch,” she said.  “Jelly, Cip...”  She snuck a look at the cook, who was standing with her back to the table.  “Maria.”  She put down her cup, making room as the housekeeper placed a plate in front of her; the eggs and bacon perfect and the biscuit brimming with melting butter and honey.  “I saw everything, you know,” she announced.  “From my window.”  Her shoulders bunched a bit, and she laughed.

“Somethin' funny?” Johnny scowled.

“You,” Teresa replied.  “Hanging out of Scott's bedroom window.”  This time she was giggling.

Peeved, Johnny shoved his plate away and stood up.  His right hand darted out, snatching the biscuit from the girl's plate.  “Don't mess with me, T'resa,” he warned.

“Don't you mess with me, Johnny Lancer,” she shot back, not the least bit intimidated.  “If you think the last month was bad,” once more, she snickered, remembering the number of house-bound chores Murdoch had assigned her brother; which she and Maria had supervised. “Just you wait until Murdoch gives you your next list of housekeeping chores!”

“That ain't happenin',” Johnny snorted.  He strode away from the table into the hallway. 

“Where the Hell's my hat?”

Scott drained the last of his coffee and stood up, reaching out a quick hand to filch the bacon from Teresa's plate.  He leaned over and kissed her forehead.  “You really need to learn to eat faster, little sister,” he teased.


Johnny was headed for the barn, but changed his mind to take a short detour in search of his hat.  He figured it had to be somewhere around the oak tree, since that was the last place he remembered having it.  Sure enough, he spotted it, laying brim upwards on the ground; a red-breasted robin peering into the crown.  Bending down, the young man picked up a small hand full of pebbles; giving the loose rock an underhanded toss in hopes of scaring the bird away.  It worked; too well.  The bird looked up and immediately dropped a load of shit; and then flew away.  “Great,” the young man muttered.

Scott shaded his eyes to watch the departing red breast.  “Left you a little token of her esteem, did she?” he queried.

“Real funny, brother,” Johnny grumped.

“It could have been worse,” Scott smirked.  “She might have decided to build a nest.”

Johnny smacked his brother's belly with the back of his hand before reaching down to pick up the Stetson.  “You oughta go on the stage, funny man,” he said.

“The one to Sacramento or Los Angeles?” the elder brother shot back without missing a beat.  Then, his tone more serious, “It's important to maintain a sense of humor, brother.”  He turned slightly, watching as Murdoch and Cip exited the segundo's house and headed in their direction.  “Especially now.”

Johnny was looking for a place to clean off his hat; grinning a bit as he attempted to swipe the brim against his brother's sleeve.  “What's he gonna do?  Kill us?”

Scott was watching the two older men as they approached.  “Perhaps,” he murmured.  “And from the look on Cip's face, he might have a willing accomplice.”

“Jesus,” Johnny breathed.  “You'd think we'd robbed a train or somethin'.”  He wiped his hat off on his knee; his gaze following his brother's.  Scott was right.  Both men looked as if they were primed for bear.

Murdoch got right down to business when he joined his offspring.  “You,” he said, pointing a long finger at his youngest, “will be working in the barn with Jelly today.”  He swung the same finger at his elder son.  “And you,” he hesitated a bit.  “What's the name of that logger you hired to work up at the sawmill?”

“Brian Culhane,” Scott answered immediately; surprised by the question. 

“I ain't workin' with Jelly.”  This from Johnny, who was standing to Scott's right; the fingers of his left hand nervously drumming against his thigh.

“You'll do as you’re told!” Murdoch snapped.  He turned his attention back to his eldest.  “I want you to go up to the mill,” he declared.  “Bring Culhane and his crew back here.”

Johnny still hadn't moved, although he was considering it.  “Why?” he asked.

Scott figured he might as well join his brother in their mutual descent to Hell.  “I'll need to tell Culhane what it is that you'll be wanting, sir,” he ventured, keeping his tone neutral.

Murdoch's eyes narrowed.  “He's going to be taking down a tree,” he answered.  “This tree.”  He pointed to the oak.


Scott sat on the edge of his bed, using both hands to rake his fingers through his hair; cringing when he felt the dirt and the sweat.  His entire body ached; primarily his back and his shoulders.  Culhane had given him a hard, day long lesson in the art of manhandling a bull rope and maneuvering large tree limbs.  There was an art, he realized, to the topping out of a mature tree; of manipulating the branches around the existing structures without doing any damage.  After ten hours, Culhane and his crew had managed to remove the majority of the larger limbs and branches; all that was remaining now, the large central trunk.  With any luck, he mused, the bulk of the work would be completed by lunch time tomorrow; and the wood hauled off to the mill.

There was a soft knock at his bedroom door; and then the sound of his door opening as Johnny stepped into the room.  The younger man was holding a pair of boots.  Scott waved him in.

Johnny handed his brother the boots.  “Managed to get them back,” he grinned.

“How did you get by Murdoch?” Scott asked.  Johnny and the old man had butted heads several times during the day; mostly over the younger man's treatment of Jelly and outright refusal to do as the old handyman instructed without a bodacious amount of argument.

The smile was tentative, but filled with mischief; the sapphire eyes dancing.  “Wasn't easy.  Almost considered bringin' em back in through the window.”

Scott was shaking out the boots; bits of old leaves and twigs littering the floor.  “What's this?” he asked, pointing to the debris.

“Old nest,” Johnny answered, quickly changing the subject.  “Can you believe it?  The Old Man havin' Culhane take down that tree?”  He was meandering around the room now, picking things up, putting them down; the usual restlessness taking him.

Scott stood up and stretched.  “I believe he was pretty succinct regarding his decision.  He made it very plain -- what were his precise words? -- ‘there is no way in Hell there will be a third time you'll be using that tree for a way in, or out, of the house, young man.’”  He laughed.

“Won't need it, now that I know about the ladder he’s got stashed in the tool shed,” Johnny snorted.  “It was kinda fun, though.”

The blond rubbed at the knot on his forehead; the one that had sprouted after his brother had almost fallen out of the tree.  “You’d think a wake was fun,” he observed dryly.

“Long as it wasn't mine,” the younger man responded.  He turned serious again.  “Culhane really knows what he's doin’,” he murmured; crossing to the window.  In the light of a new moon, what was left of the old oak looked like the skeletal remains of a crucified thief.

Scott joined his brother.  “I saw him take down a huge cottonwood at the old Franciscan mission in Spanish Wells,” he said.  “He had to drop the trunk in between the main church and the walled garden; plus avoid hitting a fountain.  His men were...”  He paused, his eyes narrowing at the memory.  “It was like watching the crew of a great ship -- a Clipper -- working the sails.  Not one misstep; not one mistake.  I hired him for the mill on the spot.”

Johnny was nodding.  He was leaning against the grid work, his head pressed against the bars.  His own experiences as a pistolero had been -- for the most part -- solitary endeavors where he relied on no one but himself; but that didn't stop him from appreciating the ability of men who could work together as a team.  Still, the concept of relying on someone else...  He shook the thought away.  “Still hate to see it go,” he whispered.

“Consequences,” Scott murmured.

The younger man looked up at his brother.  “What?”

“It's our fault, you know,” Scott reasoned.  “We keep testing the limits with Murdoch; he keeps telling us that there are consequences for our actions.  I think he meant to prove a point.”

Johnny laughed.  With a single finger, he toyed with the remains of the plaster that was still furrowed at the window's ledge.  “Think he proved his point when he bent these bars,” he grinned.

“I didn't think you were that impressed,” Scott scolded.  “I heard you back talking to Jelly.”  He punched his brother's arm.  “And Murdoch,” he added, “and Cip.”  He stretched a final time, using his fist to knead the pain in his back.  “I'm heading for a hot bath.”

The brunet returned the punch.  “You do kinda smell,” he joshed.  He smiled across at his brother, his head canted, and the corners of his mouth quirking upward.  “Jelly told Cip the Old Man oughta build a woodshed.”

Scott returned the smile.  He was at his dresser, taking out a fresh change of underwear.  “You better hope that doesn't happen,” he cautioned; nodding at the window.  The bars. 

Johnny snorted.  “That’ll be a cold day in Hell.”  He smiled again.  “Save me some hot water.”

Again, Scott laughed; the rich baritone filling the room.  “Maria tell you she wouldn’t give you any supper until you cleaned up?” he asked.

“Somethin’ like that,” the younger man answered.  Actually, the woman had -- thanks to Jelly's tattling -- lectured him almost nonstop about his bad behavior.  This havin' a family thing was becomin’ a real pain in the ass.


Johnny's stomach was growling.  He was at the breakfast table; famished after a long night of tossing and turning.  Part of the cause was the Old Man's unsettling demeanor -- he wasn't bellowing or making threats -- and the rest of it...  Well, he really didn't want to go there.

He could feel Scott watching him and ducked his head.  Then, putting on his best grin, he turned to his kid sister.  “Made my bed this mornin',” he announced; the smile turning to a quick frown when he heard his brother choking on his coffee.  He tried the smile again.  “Brought down my dirty clothes and even paired up my socks.”

Teresa stopped mid bite.  She eyed her brother suspiciously and put down her fork.  “So what do you want?” she asked.

Johnny's eyes went wide, a pained expression appearing on his face as he feigned hurt.  “Nothin',” he said, pouting a bit.  “Just tryin' to be helpful.”

Murdoch's newspaper rattled and he stared across the top of his glasses at his youngest boy.  Johnny, he knew, was embarking on yet another con.  He sighed.  There was no point in letting on that he was aware that something was going on; at least not until he knew for sure what his son was planning.  And then he would decide on the punishment.

Scott made room on his plate for the extra bacon Maria was handing out to her niño; all having been forgiven, at least for the eldest Lancer, whose work the previous day had been long and well done.  He grinned across at his brother; pointing to his plate and the extra side meat, then turned to his father.  “And what's on the agenda today, sir?” he asked.

Johnny made a kissing sound against the back of his hand; which was totally ignored.  He decided to turn on the charm, tugging at Maria's apron strings as she passed him by.  “Any chance of some extra bacon on this plate, mamacita?” he asked, smiling up at the woman.  He was rewarded with a solid thwack on the back of his head.  Maria disappeared back into the kitchen, mumbling under her breath about disrespectful sons, bad manners and how children should be seen and not heard.

Murdoch took off his glasses and put down his paper.  “Hopefully, Culhane and his crew will finish up with the tree this morning,” he said, answering Scott’s question.  He took a drink of coffee before continuing.  “I've told him we're going to keep the bench, and to leave enough of the trunk so that it can be hollowed out to make a planter for Maria.”  Smiling, he turned to his youngest.  “That, my boy, will be your job.”

From across the table came the sound of grumbling.  Johnny was muttering under his breath, mostly in Spanish; a useless thing since his father and Teresa were fluent in the language, and Scott was learning fast.

The blond's right eyebrow rose at the steady stream of obscenities and he decided to divert the brewing storm.  “And after we're finished with the tree?” he asked.

“Culhane and his crew will take the logs to the sawmill.”  Murdoch answered.  “You and I will go with him; it will give me an opportunity to take a look at the operation and discuss any improvements we may need to make before we confirm the contract with Mitchell.”

Johnny had stopped griping; his mood improved when Scott decided to share his extra bacon.  He was chewing on the final piece when he spoke up.  “We ridin' or drivin'?” he asked.

We” his father answered, pointing first to Scott and then to himself, “will be riding.”  He swung his finger in Johnny's direction.  “You,” he continued, “since you can't seem to take direction from Jelly without argument, will be working with Cip.”

“Don't like takin' direction from him, either,” the dark haired youth complained.  He was fully aware Maria was standing behind him.  It was part of the plan.

I can find things for him to do, Patón,” the woman announced.  Her right toe was tapping against the carpeted floor; her arms were folded across her breasts, and she was not smiling.

Teresa and Scott both decided it would be a good time to leave the table.  They excused themselves; Teresa taking her plate and heading for the kitchen, Scott heading for the door.  Murdoch simply leaned back in his chair and took another sip of his coffee.  He appeared to be thinking; giving serious consideration to what the housekeeper was suggesting.

Patrón?”  The woman prompted.

Murdoch nodded.  “You’ll work in the house,” he declared finally; pinning his youngest with a severe I call the tune frown.  Between Maria and Teresa, he was sure and certain his son would have absolutely no time to get into any new mischief.

Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest and he pretended to sulk; successfully hiding the smile.  “Whatever,” he grumbled.


Teresa was sitting on the couch with her feet up; munching an after-lunch apple.  She watched as her brother feather-dusted his way around the room, calling out to him as he approached the bookshelves behind the big table.  “Be careful around the ships, Johnny,” she ordered.  “Oh.  And the pheasant…”

Johnny kept his back to the girl.  He didn’t move one thing on top of the shelf; just rearranged the dust, smirking a bit as he remembered the look on his foster sister’s face when he caught her peeking into his room.  True to his word, he had made the bed; and picked up the laundry.  Teresa had been completely miffed.

“Anything else, your highness?” he asked, turning around and bowing slightly.  Small feathers from the duster were dropping to the floor and he toed them away.

Teresa had to think about it for a moment.  “Windows,” she said finally.  “You can wash the windows.”  She waved a regal hand toward the French doors.

And you can kiss my ass, Johnny thought.  “Nope,” he said.  He tossed the feather duster at his tormentor, putting a spin on it, watching as she slid off the couch in her attempt to duck.  “Maria said we’re gonna beat some rugs now.”  He liked that idea; beating the hell out of something.  Would have liked it even better if he could hang T’resa over the clothes line and beat on her awhile, too.  She’d been bitchy and bossy as hell all morning long.

The girl was picking herself up from the floor; pursing her lips to blow a stray strand of hair away from her eyes.  “I’d rather beat you!” she fussed.  She pulled herself erect, dusting off her skirt.  “You’ll have to get the rugs from the hallway upstairs and the one from…”  Looking up, she realized she was talking to an empty room.

Johnny skidded into the kitchen, pulling himself up short when he spied Maria coming out of the pantry.  She had two wicker carpet beaters in her hands; formidable looking weapons, he realized.  He smiled.  He’d been on his best behavior all morning.  “Do I got time to take care of some business?” he asked, blushing a bit as he pointed a single finger at the ceiling above their heads; to the upstairs water closet.

The woman’s frown softened.  Juanito seemed to be dancing in place; the same way her small nietos (grandsons) did when they had waited to long to heed nature’s call.  She nodded and made a shooing motion with her hand.

He took off toward the back stair well; pausing a bit in the small anteroom to look back into the kitchen.  Maria’s back was to him, and he bit back the laughter; then sprinted out the back door.


Scott entered the Great Room, pausing a moment as he was about to pass the large dining table.  Johnny was setting the table for dinner.  “Busy day?” he grinned.

“Maria can be a pretty tough when she’s bossin’ you around,” the younger man answered; “and she’s pretty damned handy with that wooden spoon!”  He lifted a silver fork; studied it with a critical eye and then polished it with the edge of a napkin.  “T’resa ain’t no slouch, either,” he observed.  “How’d it go with the Old Man?”

The blond moved on to the collection of bottles on the table behind the couch.  He poured a large measure of bourbon before he answered.  “Fine,” he answered truthfully.  He took a long drink of the whiskey.  “He’s with Jelly right now.”  There was slight pause as he took another, smaller drink.  “It seems when Jelly tried to get into his room this evening, the door knob fell out; and when he finally got the door open, it fell off the hinges.”  He was turning the crystal tumbler between his palms, watching the whiskey whirlpool away from the rim.  “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, brother?”

Johnny was still fussing with the silver.  “Nope,” he answered.  “Hell, Scott,” he looked across the table to where his brother was standing, “ask Maria.  I ain’t been outta the house; not once.”  His face and eyes radiated innocence.

“Uh-huh,” Scott nodded.  There was no way he was going to pursue the issue, and he knew better than to believe his brother. 


It was obvious from the discussion at the dinner table, Murdoch surmised, that Maria and Teresa had both been diligent in their supervision of Johnny’s chores, and that the young man had done exactly as he was told.  The best evidence that Johnny had behaved was the amount of food Maria had prepared: that, and the three tiered chocolate cake she produced as soon as the main meal ended.

Teresa was prattling on in between bites of cake.  “So, Johnny, are you going to make your bed tomorrow morning?” she asked.

The young man nodded; the curls at his forehead falling across his eyebrows.  He shrugged.  “No big deal,” he said.  “Scott does it all the time.  Makes his bed.” he added. 

Scott was busy making small swirls with his fork in the frosting on the side of his cake.  “And pick up your dirty clothes?” he teased.

“Did that this mornin’,” Johnny laughed.  “Figure I got another week or two before I hafta do it again.”

Murdoch was watching his youngest son closely.  “Maria said you didn’t go out side even once,” he ventured.  The incident with Jelly’s door was still niggling at him.

“Just when we was beatin’ the rugs,” Johnny responded; smirking a bit as he saw both Maria and Teresa nod their heads in affirmation.  He stared for a moment at his now empty cake plate and then turned his smile on for the cook.  “¿Más, por favor?”  (more, please?) he asked.

Scott immediately thought of Oliver Twist.  There was a bemused expression on his face as he watched the cook not only cut another piece of cake, but bustle off to the kitchen to get more milk.  He finished the last of his wine, and addressed his brother.  “Are you up for a game of chess?” he asked.

Johnny was already well through the second piece of cake.  “Feelin’ a need to get your Boston ass whupped?”

“John,” Murdoch warned.  He nodded in Teresa’s direction.

The younger man shrugged.  “Sorry, T’resa.”  It was clear from his face he wasn’t; not really.  It wasn’t as if the girl didn’t know a few cuss words herself.  Turning his attention back to his brother, he asked, “We playin’ for money?”

Scott laughed.  “You don’t have any money,” he reminded.

Johnny immediately turned to his father.  “Any chance of me gettin’ an advance?” he asked. 

Murdoch actually chuckled.  And then he wiped his chin, stood up, and left the room.


“He made his bed again this morning,” Teresa said.  She was standing beside the bench that still encircled the oak’s massive trunk.  What was left of the tree, anyway. 

Scott was squatting down; his butt hovering just inches above the heels of his boots as he eyed the remainder of the stump.  Picking up the level from the tool box, he placed it on the surface of the newly sanded core; the bubble in the glass tube almost plumb.  “What do you think he wants?” he asked.

Teresa frowned.  “I haven’t figured it out yet,” she answered.  “But I know he’s up to something.”

Scott stood up; dusting off his hands.  “Maria still keeping him busy?” 

“That’s the other thing,” Teresa muttered.  She reached out, her fingers caressing the surface of the tree trunk.  “He’s following her around like a puppy, Scott; doing every little thing she asks.”  She stole a look at her elder brother.  “He washed the breakfast dishes.”

The blond was kneeling on the bench now; using a carpenter’s pencil to inscribe a thick line on the flat surface.  Using the level as a straight edge, he made a second line.  The trunk was now divided in to precise quarters.  He put the level back in the tool box and picked up the hammer and a single nail; propping the small spike up with his thumb and forefinger.  Three measured taps and the nail was in place; dead center.  He tossed the hammer into the box and retrieved the ball of twine.  “More chocolate cake?” he asked.  “Tamales?”  Measuring out a length of string, he attached one end to the nail; looping the other end around the pencil.  “Does he have some mending he needs done we don’t know about?”  Johnny was hard on his clothes; neglecting small snags until they became major rips and tears.   

Teresa was shaking her head.  “I don’t think so.”  She watched as Scott inscribed a circle on the surface of the tree trunk.  “The most he’s asked her for is milk; glasses and glasses of milk, all day long.”  She giggled; knowing that she had exaggerated, but not much.  “You’d think he had a cat hidden somewhere…”

Scott’s stomach did a small flip.  He wouldn’t, he thought.  He couldn’t, he hoped.


The first thing Scott noticed when he stepped into the upstairs hallway was that Johnny’s door was shut, and his own bedroom door was partially open.  Leaning against the wall, he slipped out of his boots.  Carefully putting them down, he began tip-toeing down the hall to his room.

Johnny was standing beside Scott’s dresser.  He was holding on to the small leather pouch, and it was open.

“Just what the Hell do you think you’re doing, little brother?” he barked.

Startled, the younger man spun around, and just as quickly put his hand behind his back.  Then, knowing he had been caught, he raised both hands; the small bag dangling from the fingers of his right hand.  “I was gonna leave you an I.O.U.,” he offered.

“And you need money why?”  Scott grabbed for the sack.  Although Murdoch hadn’t yet set any time restrictions on when they’d be allowed to go back into town, Scott knew there was a chance it was going to be a long time before either he or his brother had any real need of cash.

“Not money,” Johnny grimaced.  “Just…my lucky coin.”

The blond’s eyes narrowed.  “I have your lucky coin?” he asked.  “Since when did you have a lucky coin?  He snatched the pouch from his brother’s hand and turned back to the dresser; pouring out the collection of silver dollars.

Johnny’s hand darted out.  His nimble fingers sorted through the coins and quickly closed around a silver peso. 

Scott grabbed his younger brother’s hand.  “Show me,” he demanded.

“You won’t like it,” the other responded.  He felt Scott’s fingers tighten.  Giving up, he opened his palm.

The elder Lancer plucked the coin from his brother’s hand and studied it.  And then he turned it over.  “Two heads,” he breathed.  Mentally, he berated himself for being such a gullible idiot.  Johnny was always tossing a coin with him for one thing or another, usually some unpleasant task neither one of them wanted to do, and his brother rarely -- very rarely -- lost.  “You’d cheat your own brother?” he asked incredulously.

Johnny’s cheeks colored.  “I’d switch coins sometimes!” he groused.  “It’s not like I let you lose every time!!”  He grinned up at his sibling.  “I never let Jelly win,” he confided; not the least bit ashamed of the times he had conned the old man.

“Have you ever played this game with Murdoch?” Scott asked.  He shook the thought aside.  Murdoch never gambled on the little things.  “Did  you ever play this game with Val?”

The younger man snorted.  “You think I’m nuts?  Val’d see through it in a heartbeat.”  He wiggled his fingers at his brother.  “Give it up,” he ordered, nodding at the coin.

Scott’s fingers closed around the peso.  The comment about Val not falling for the ruse was leaving him feeling more than a tad vindictive.  “Nope,” he answered.  “You want this back; you’re going to have to earn it.”  He shoved the coin into his pocket.

Johnny’s head came up.  “How?” he demanded.

“I haven’t decided yet,” the older man answered.  “Now, about all this milk I hear you’ve been conning out of Maria…”

The brunet stiffened.  “I don’t know what the Hell you’re talkin’ about.”

“Oh, yes, you do,” Scott declared.  He gestured toward the hallway with his thumb.  “Your room,” he ordered.  “Now.”

A voice called out from below; sweet, melodious.  Juanito…

Johnny’s face lit up and he backed away from his brother.  “Comin’, Mamacita!” he yelled.  And then he sprinted for the doorway.

Scott swore.  He followed his brother into the hallway; pausing at the threshold to Johnny’s bedroom.  Whatever was going on, he thought, the answer was in his brother’s room.  He reached out, grabbing the doorknob.

The door was locked.


Johnny was getting restless; moving around the hacienda like a caged animal, finally ending up in the Great Room.  It had been more almost two weeks and Murdoch still hadn’t let him off the leash.  Teresa was driving him crazy with the hundred and one silly chores she had thought up for him, and Maria was getting downright testy about the quality of his work, which had decidedly slipped.  He pestered both women; asking questions, pretending he didn’t remember what side of the plate the fork went on.  Anything to get him chased out of the house; although he was still careful to make his bed and keep his clothes picked up.  He’d give Teresa or Maria a peek, and then make sure the door was locked.

It was driving Scott crazy!


He looked up, roused from his musings.  “Scott.”

“Maria tells me you’re slacking off,” the blond announced.  He was toying with his Stetson; flicking a mote of barn dirt from the brim.


“So,” Murdoch answered as he entered the room, a stack of mail in his hand. “I think it’s time for you to do some outside chores.”

The younger man actually perked up.  “Like what?” he asked; hopeful.  About the only time he’d been allowed outside was to groom Barranca and muck out the palomino’s stall.  Scott, on the other hand, -- the perfect son -- had pretty much resumed a normal routine.

Murdoch sat down at his desk and began sorting through the mail.  “There are two jobs that need doing right now,” he intoned.  “One of you needs to go over to Aggie Conway’s to deliver our final portion of the payment for that seed bull; and one of you needs to give Jelly a hand cleaning out and repairing the outhouse behind the barn.”

Johnny raised his hand.  “I’ll go over to Aggie’s,” he volunteered; feeling generous.

Scott had hooked his hat over the butt of his revolver.  “Let’s be fair about this, brother,” he reasoned.  He dug into his front pants pocket.  “We’ll flip.”  The coin spun in the air, flashing in the rays of sunlight that streamed from the window behind Murdoch’s desk; and before Johnny could speak, Scott called it.  “Heads!”  He slapped the peso against the back of his hand; uncovering it and displaying it for his father.  “I choose Aggie’s,” he crowed, and put away the coin.  His eyes were shining.  “I think I’ll ride Barranca,” he announced, almost as an after thought.  “The animal could use some exercise.”

The brunet watched as his brother headed out the door.  “Hey, Murdoch?” he asked softly.

The big Scot was reading a letter.  “Yes, son,” he answered.

“How pissed off would you get if I shot my big brother?”


Johnny hadn’t liked Murdoch’s curt answer to his question about shooting Scott; anymore than he liked his current chore.  It was bad enough he was hauling up buckets of human sludge from the pit below the out house (which had been moved backwards and was now sitting on skids just a short distance from where it normally stood), but even worse was the job of emptying the slop pails into the honey wagon.  It didn’t help Jelly had taken his position as supervisor so seriously he wasn’t doing any of the work.  So here Johnny was, hefting and toting, climbing up and down; and there was Jelly…

standing right at the edge of the rectangular pit; poking with a stick to gauge the depth of the remaining muck. 

The younger man dropped down lightly from the side of the honey wagon; giving the big wooden holding tank a sudden thack with his gloved hand.  “We already hit gravel,” Johnny said.  “We keep scoopin’, we’re gonna screw up the drain field.”  He smiled at that; remembering Scott’s explanation of how a latrine was intended to function.  “Bag of quick lime will take care of the rest,” he continued.  And the stink.

“Well aren’t you jest Mr. Know-it-all,” Jelly blustered.  His own experiences with outhouses were fairly limited the past few years when he had been wandering with his boys: the facilities they had used usually consisting of a trip out into the woods behind some bushes.  He pulled the measuring rod out of the hole, waving the stick dangerously close to Johnny’s nose.  I’m sayin’ we can scoop up a bit more.”  He puffed out his chest.  “A job worth doin’, is worth doin’ right.”

Johnny’s fingers were thumping against his right thigh in time to some secret melody only he seemed to hear.   Where was it written in Murdoch Lancer’s Book of Rules that part of his job was not only listening to Jelly, but havin’ to scoop human shit and piss outta some hole in the ground?, he wondered.  It was one thing muckin’ out Barranca’s stall, but this…  He slapped his palm against his britches.  “We’re done,” he announced.  He turned away from the older man.  “Hey, Charlie!” he called out, waving as Fletcher rode up to the back gate of the corral.  “Need you and Pete to hitch up the water wagon; follow me and the honey pot out to the south meadow!”

The tall red head waved his hand and nodded his head in agreement.  “Jelly gonna come along to help spread all that shit?” he grinned.

Johnny laughed.  “Hell, Charlie!  Ya know Jelly’s an expert in spreadin’ bullshit.  This stuff,” he gestured toward the honey wagon, “should be no problema.”

Jelly began to sputter even more than usual.  “Now, you listen here, Mr. Smarty Pants,” he began.  “Your Pa put me in charge of this here job, and I’m tellin’ you, we ain’t done!”

“Goddammit, Jelly!” Johnny swore and slammed his fist against the oaken staves of the large wooden tank; a loud thunk sounding.  Yielding to his temper, he spun around and took a single step towards the handy man; pulling up short as the old man instinctively backed up.  “Oh, shit…”

Jelly’s arms were flailing above his head and he had dropped his measuring stick.  He was teetering on the edge of the hole Johnny had just been cleaning. Clearly startled by the younger man’s sudden move, he took another step backwards and felt nothing but air.

Johnny dove for the older man, landing flat on his belly as he grabbed for the handyman’s collar.  He felt Jelly’s fingers close around his right forearm and held on tight; relieved when Charlie Fletcher appeared just to his left.  “Help me haul ‘im up, Charlie,” he grunted.

Together, Johnny and Charlie pulled Jelly up from the pit.  Johnny was on his knees now, and he eased himself upright, dragging Jelly along.  “You okay?” he asked; reaching out to brush off the old man’s trousers, changing his mind as he saw the dark slime.  He leaned in, his lips close to the handy man’s right ear.  “Might want to think about takin’ a bath, Jelly,” he suggested, his nose crinkling.  He was working overtime to stop the smile.  “Kinda ripe,” he noted; winking at Charlie Fletcher, who was standing at Jelly’s back.

For once, the old man was speechless.  He turned on his heel, and began marching across the barnyard in the direction of the bath house.

Johnny and Charlie Fletcher were watching the handy man.  Both of them were holding their sides, trying hard not to laugh; not an easy thing as they heard the steady squish, squish, squish of Jelly’s departing footsteps.  Johnny stole a quick look at Fletcher; a sudden guffaw coming from between his lips as he saw the expression on the red head’s face, and they both dissolved into wild, side-splitting and unrestrained laughter.


Murdoch was seated on wide stone bench beside the hacienda’s kitchen door; his long legs stretched out before him.  He was smoking his pipe; enjoying the sights and sounds of a day that was just beginning to yield to a pink-tinged twilight, a sense of peace filling him.  Supper was over, the routine chores were finished, and the world was preparing to sleep.  “Scott,” he welcomed, nodding as his eldest son appeared in the doorway.

The tall blond stepped across the threshold, shutting the door behind him as he returned his father’s greeting.  “Murdoch.”  Unbidden, he joined the older man on the bench, leaning back and resting his head against the textured stucco.

“Where is…?” Murdoch asked between puffs.

“Are you sure you want me to answer that question, sir?” Scott interrupted; knowing full well what his father was about to ask: where is your brother?

Murdoch allowed himself a small chuckle.  “Yes,” he answered.  Johnny had disappeared from the house right after supper; leaving his father and Scott to deal with a still upset Jelly.

Scott’s stretched out, his long legs slim in contrast to his father’s; and he seemed to measuring their length against his sire’s.  “May I ask you a question first, sir?”

There was a scraping sound as the elder Lancer scratched a sulphur-tipped match against the stone bench; and then the softer, more subtle sound as he pulled at the pipe in an attempt to get it going again.  “Is it one I’m going to want to answer?” the older man queried, his tone neutral; just a trace of humor betraying his good mood.

Scott laughed.  He was becoming quite adept at reading his father’s voice; the gentler emotions that were not so deeply hidden anymore. “Why is he always my brother when you think he’s up to some mischief, and your son on those,” the smile came easily, “occasions when he’s actually done something that pleases you?”

Murdoch was silent for a heartbeat.  “It’s listed in my Book of Rules, son,” he declared.  He lifted his hand; writing in the air, the smoke from his pipe marking his movements.  Take credit, but no blame…”

The blond pretended to stroke his chin in a failed attempt to hide the growing smile that was creasing the corners of his pale eyes.  “I see,” he nodded. “And are there other rules I should be aware of,” he turned his gaze on his father’s profile, “for future reference?  Ones that we haven’t discussed before?”

The big Scot was using the small blade of his pocket knife to scrape the burnt tobacco from the bowl of his pipe.  The Books of Rules, Father and Big Brother, had been a shared joke between the two men.  “Yes,” he answered.  “When your first born anticipates your question and employs diversionary tactics to avoid answering, ask the question again until you get your answer…”

Scott felt his cheeks flushing.  “Maria made him use the bath house after he finished dumping the honey wagon up in the south meadow.  And now…”  He nodded towards the bunkhouse; at the pale yellow glow emanating from the flour-sack curtained window.  “Johnny’s looking for someone to grub stake him until payday,” he announced. 

Surprised, Murdoch hesitated in refilling his pipe; hefting the small pouch containing the sweet smelling tobacco he preferred.  “Isn’t that your usual province, Scott?  Loaning your brother money when he finds himself strapped for cash?”  He had found it amusing; right from the beginning: the strange paradox between Scott’s business-like thriftiness and his generosity towards his younger brother.  

Restless, Scott stood up.  “Suffice it to say, sir, the Bank of the Benevolent Big Brother is temporarily closed.”  He looked down at his father, making no attempt to hide the smile.  “At least until I’m satisfied Johnny has learned his lesson, or repented.”  He dug into his front pants pocket, withdrawing a single coin.

Murdoch took the proffered piece of silver.  He fingered the piece, turning it over and smiling.  A two-headed peso.  His right brow lifted slightly.  “Is this the coin you used to win the trip to Aggie’s?”

Scott nodded; not the least bit ashamed.  “I won it from Johnny, the last time we were in town, although he didn’t realize he’d given it up.”  He was smiling.  “If I had a dollar for every time I fell for his ‘let’s toss for it’…”

Unable to help himself, Murdoch laughed.  He handed the coin back.  “So when do you plan on returning it?” he asked.

The blond’s pale eyes danced with a familiar fire.  “Not until I’ve gotten my due,” he answered. 

A shrill whistle cut through the cool evening air and father and son looked up to see Johnny making his way across the yard.  The young man’s hands were stuffed into his front pockets, and he was kicking a dried horse apple ahead of him as he approached the house; playing a country boy’s version of kick the can.  Scott turned to his father.  “He’s found a patsy,” he grinned.  His voice lowered.  “He’s going to ask if he can go into town.”  When he saw his father’s brief frown come and just as quickly go, he decided to risk it.  “It has been two weeks, sir,” he ventured.  A long, hard two weeks.

Murdoch watched as his youngest sauntered toward the patio.  “Have you learned your lesson, Scott?  Have you repented?”  The pipe was going again, the scent of burgundy and cherry floating on a cloud of blue-gray smoke.

Scott’s mouth dropped open and he was about to speak when he saw his father’s smile.  He changed his mind, choosing instead to watch what he knew was about to unfold.

Johnny was smiling when he reached the porch.  “Hey, Scott,” he greeted.

“Hey, Johnny,” Scott smiled.

The dark haired youth eased down next to his father; taking the seat his elder brother had just vacated.  “Hey, Pa,” he sighed.  He pulled off his Stetson and raked his fingers through his dark hair; the curls, still damp from his bath, falling across his forehead.

Murdoch returned the greeting, resisting the urge to reach out and put his son’s too long hair right.  “Hey, my son.”

Johnny grinned inwardly at his father’s unexpectedly mild response.  This is goin’ to be a hell of a lot easier than I figured.  “I was thinkin’, Murdoch,” he risked a sidewise glance at his Old Man, “it’s been two weeks since me an’ Scott…”

“Since Scott and I,” Murdoch corrected.  “And it won’t be two weeks until tomorrow,” he added.

The youth shrugged, “…since Scott and I been to town.”  He grinned up at his brother.  “We’ve been workin’ real hard, makin’ up for…” he fumbled a bit “…for bein’ late and all the other night.

“Won’t happen again,” he promised solemnly, raising his right hand.  The gettin’ caught part, anyway.

Scott bit the inside of his lower lip in an attempt to stop the laughter that was threatening to come.  Johnny was really laying it on thick.  Crossing his arms, he leaned back against the pillar, facing his brother and father; content to watch the show.

Murdoch was sucking a bit on his pipe, his expression one of deep thought.  Actually, he was reflecting on his most recent period of remarkable self-control.  Other than his initial reaction after his sons’ late night trespasses, he’d simply assigned a long list of extra chores, fitting punishment for their disobedience and outright mischief.  A little drunken rowdiness he could have -- would have -- let pass, allowing their own bodies to punish them while they worked off their hangovers.  However, the attempt to sneak in like ten year olds’ after a night of outhouse tipping was something entirely different; too much a reminder of their behavior after the incident with the mountain lion cubs and their mind-numbing attempts at petty revenge. 

Scott, as usual, had accepted his lot as eldest son and elder brother; along with his just measure of punishment.  The blond had even made a point of apologizing for his bad judgment, good-naturedly confessing he not only could have been a less willing participant in Johnny’s misadventure, he could have probably prevented it.

Johnny had reacted differently.  There had, of course, been no apology.  Johnny’s response had been to immediately back talk, telling his father ‘don’t start yellin’, my head hurts’ and then arguing about the chores he was assigned.

Murdoch felt a gentle poke at his shoulder, and found himself back in the here and now.  His pipe had gone out, and both of his sons were standing in front of him, looking down at him with bemused expressions.

“So how about it, Murdoch?” Johnny grinned, his eyes bright with anticipation.  “Gonna cut the wolf loose?”

The older man stood up and stretched.  He exchanged a quick look with his eldest.  “Tell you what, son.”  He nodded towards the setting sun.  “If you manage to stay out of trouble all day tomorrow, and make some proper amends, you can go into town.  Perhaps even early enough to get a hair cut.”  With that, Murdoch bid his sons goodnight.

Johnny stood with his mouth agape, reaching out to pull Scott up short as his brother started to follow Murdoch inside.  “What the hell does he mean?  ‘Proper amends’?”  Then, his face clouding, his lower lip jutting out, “And I ain’t gettin’ any haircut!”  To drive his point home, he jammed his Stetson down hard on his head; tucking his unruly locks beneath the crown.

Scott was chuckling.  “Sit,” he ordered, pointing at the bench.

“Don’t feel like sittin’,” Johnny snapped.  “Leastways, not here.”  He was feeling a familiar itch; the one he couldn’t scratch in public. Or in front of his brother, for that matter; if he didn’t want to get his hand smacked.

“The girls will still be there tomorrow night, brother,” Scott reasoned.  Taking his younger brother by the shoulders, he maneuvered him onto the bench, holding on until he felt the youth settle in.  “You need to talk to Jelly.”

Puzzled, Johnny stared up at his brother.  “Why?”  Unbidden, the slow smile came.  Johnny dipped his head and scratched at his ear; remembering the old handy man’s trip across the barnyard and his later rant in the house.

Scott was tempted to begin pacing, but stood his ground.  “You were pretty hard on him this afternoon, Johnny,” he said, the words coming softly but filled with censure.  “You did a lot of rather crude teasing, and in front of the crew.”

“C’mon, Scott.”  Johnny looked up.  “It was pretty funny…”

“It was not funny!”

Johnny stood up.  He jabbed his brother’s chest with his rigid forefinger.  “Hey!  It’s not like I pushed him into that fuckin’ hole!”  Which is exactly what the old coot had suggested until Scott called him on it.

Scott’s hand closed around his brother’s wrist.  “That’s not the point, Johnny.  Jelly had an unfortunate accident, and you were out of line making fun of what happened.”  He was quiet a moment.  “That’s not like you, brother.”

Johnny looked away.  “So it’s okay for the old man to yap to Murdoch about me bein’ stuck in the window, or yammerin’ on about what I should and shouldn’t do, but I can’t…”

“…get even?” Scott finished.  When he saw his brother was about to protest, he shook his head.  “Just do it, and move on,” he suggested.

“And?”  Suspicious, Johnny eyed his sibling.  He knew in his gut there was definitely an and.

“And then you can make peace with Murdoch, and we can get on with our lives.  Such as they are.”  He was feeling the same itch as his brother, and was looking forward to having it scratched before they both died of old age.

“You tellin’ me I got to apologize?”

Sincerely apologize, Johnny.”  Scott reached out, laying his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” the younger man snorted.

“It means, little brother, you need to apologize for what you’ve done, not for being caught,” Scott answered, diligently trying to keep a straight face.

Johnny saw the beginnings of a smile; Scott’s eyes betraying him.  “Think you’re pretty fuckin’ smart, don’tcha?”

“Smart enough to know you’re expert at pushing everyone to the limit, and you enjoy doing it.”  The blond’s hand moved from the younger man’s shoulder as he gave his brother’s cheek a light smack.

The younger man snickered.  “Bugs the Hell outta ya, don’t it?  Me lockin’ my bedroom door?”

Scott pretended to not care.  It wasn’t working.  “Considering you have a problem carrying a key to the front door; yes, I do find it annoying.”

Johnny was rocking back and forth on his heels and toes.  “Annoyin’ enough to pick the lock?” he teased, remembering the incident in with the bathroom door.  “Better not.  I’ll tell the Old Man.”

“He’d just want to know why,” Scott countered.  A germ of an idea was forming.  Being a patient man, he filed it away for future use.  “Time to let ‘er buck,” he said, nodding at the door.

Johnny sighed.  “Okay.  I’ll make peace with the Old Man and Jelly.”  Together, the two young men headed toward the kitchen portico.  “But I ain’t getting’ a haircut,” he finished.   


The youngest Lancer son had been the embodiment of proper deportment the entire day.  In fact, if Murdoch Lancer hadn’t known for certain it was his son standing before him he would have sworn the little people had gifted him with a changeling.  An angelic, albeit now restless changeling.  Johnny had not only made amends with Jelly, he had actually done a fair job of apologizing to his father for his most recent transgression.   

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait until after dinner before you leave?”  Murdoch asked the question already certain of the answer.  It was almost four thirty; another hour and a half before their normal time at the table.

Johnny was standing next to Scott in front of their father’s desk.  The Grandfather clock on the far wall had just dinged the half-hour.  His hat was in his hands, and he was holding on to the brim with both hands, his fingers drumming against the felt.  “Me ‘n’ Scott are goin’ to take Val out to supper,” the younger man answered. 

“I see,” Murdoch nodded.  He brushed his upper lip with his hand, hiding the smile.  “And what time do you plan on being home?” he asked.

Scott turned his head slightly to gaze at his brother, smiling as the younger man struggled with the answer.

“Midnight.”  Johnny replied, his answer sounding more like a question.  He shot a quick look at his sibling.  “I got my key,” he said, patting his shirt pocket.  Actually, he had two; the one to the front door and the one to his bedroom.  “In case we’re late.”

Wrong answer, Scott mused.  He remained silent.

“You’re planning on being late?” Murdoch asked.  He came forward in his chair, the frown just as severe as he intended.

Johnny realized his mistake.  “Uh… Nope,” he watched as his father’s scowl deepened, “No, sir,” he tried again.

“Well, see that you aren’t,” the older man growled.  He leaned back in his chair, digging into his front pants pocket.  When he withdrew his hand, he was clutching a ten dollar gold piece.  “Johnny,” he called.  He flipped the coin to his son.  “Haircut,” he declared.  “And I want to see those ears.”

Before the brunet had a chance to answer, he felt his brother’s fingers on his arm.  “Hey!” he snorted.

Scott ignored his sibling, still holding on to the younger man’s arm.  “Is there anything we can bring you back from town, sir?  Tobacco, perhaps?”

Murdoch shook his head at his elder son’s smoothness.  “No, thank you,” he replied.  With that, he waved his sons off.


Val stood next to Scott on the boardwalk.  He gave the blond a nudge with his elbow.  “Think he’s gonna do it?” he asked.

Scott was leaning against the post that supported the roof on the small porch in front of Baldemero’s mercado.  Like the lawman, he was watching Johnny; who was pacing up and down in front of the barber shop.  “Two to one, he does it,” he ventured; reasonably certain his brother was at least willing to have a trim.

“You’re on!” Val chortled.  Johnny’s favorite past time was not doing what his father wanted, and the sheriff was certain this time would be no exception.  Out of the side of his eye, he could see the beginnings of a smile on the blond’s face.  “C’mon, Scott.  When have you known that little shit to do a thing just because Murdoch told him to?”

“Not that many times,” Scott admitted ruefully.  He faced the lawman, an embarrassed grin forming.  “Once,” he said.   

Val’s eyes narrowed and he reached up, shoving his hat well back on his head.  “And when was that?” he asked doubtfully.

“Now, Val,” Scott cajoled, not looking at the man, the next words coming in a slow drawl; pure Madrid.  “If I told you that, I’d have to tell you everything.  And then I’d have to shoot you.”  He laughed. 

The lawman was not amused.  He pulled his Stetson from his head, and began swatting at the younger man.  “You been hangin’ around the kid too long, Boston,” Val scolded.  “That smart mouth is gonna get your ass kicked!”  He finished the diatribe with another swipe of his hat.  And then he laughed, and pointed.  “Told ya!” he crowed.  He held out his hand, waggling his fingers.  “Pay up, college boy!”

Scott looked up to see his unshorn brother stepping down into the street, taking a deep breath as Johnny collided with the Widow Hargis.  Shaking his head, he pulled two silver dollars from his pocket and pressed them into the lawman’s hand.

The brunet was doffing his hat to the widow; bowing and then spinning away from the woman as she took a swing at him with her parasol.  He sprinted across the street; breathless as hopped up onto the boardwalk.  Grinning up at his brother, the younger man gave a slight nod in the direction of the saloon.  “Thirsty?”  He was bouncing a ten dollar gold coin in his hand; flipping it in the air and then catching it.  “Old Man’s buyin’.”

“Haircut?” Scott asked; his head canted.

“Zeke’s shop’s full,” the younger man announced.

“Somethin’s full,” Val snorted under his breath; “of shit.”  He could see the interior of the barber shop through the uncurtained window; the single chair vacant.  Old Zeke was sweeping the floor; a solitary figure in an otherwise empty store.

“C’mon, brother,” Johnny coaxed.  “Little drink, little supper,” he grinned up at his sibling, “a little dessert…”  The blue eyes were dancing.  He put his arm around Scott’s shoulder.  “You, too, Val.”

The lawman surveyed the brothers with a critical eye.  “You two yahoos know you ain’t got a chance in Hell of bribin’ me with one lousy dinner.”   He shook a finger at the pair; his right eyebrow rising.  “You get in any trouble later on, I will throw you’re sorry asses in jail…”

Johnny laughed.  “I don’t figure on getting’ into any trouble, Val.”  He gave Scott a good-natured, one-armed hug.  “Big brother is goin’ to keep me on the straight an’ narrow tonight.”  He stole a look at his sibling.  “Ain’t that right, Scott?”

Val started up the walkway, the two brothers falling in beside him.  “Yeah.  Well, I heard big brother there,” he nodded in Scott’s direction, “is as good at gettin’ into trouble as you are, boy.”  He cut his eyes at Johnny.  “Jelly was in town this mornin’.”

Scott pulled his brother up short; reaching out to tap the lawman’s shoulder.  “I’ll have you know, constable -- in spite of what Jelly may tell you -- I take my responsibility as elder brother very seriously,” he declared.  “In addition to making sure he no longer cuts wind at the table, talks with his mouth full or forgets to wash behind his ears,” he reached out, ruffling Johnny’s hair, “I have also curtailed his late night activities…”

Val opened the door to the café; standing back to allow the brothers to pass.  “You also been curtailin’ his late night tree climbin’?” he laughed.


The lawman was laughing so hard, tears were rolling down his cheeks and he was struggling to get his breath.  Jelly’s version of the story of Johnny and the oak tree hadn’t been nearly as amusing as Scott’s.  “You’re shittin’ me!” he guffawed. 

“No,” Scott was shaking his head.  The two men were sitting at a table in the back corner of the Silver Dollar.  He reached out, fingering the brim of his Stetson, his gaze wandering to the table where Johnny was romancing a sweet young thing named Miranda; a petite little blond.  “It’s all true,” he admitted.  “Murdoch caught us, and we spent the last two weeks paying, once again, for the error of our ways.”  He saluted the lawman with his glass.  “Which is why I’m going to make sure little brother gets home early tonight.”

Val picked up his glass.  He took a quick look around the room; grateful that the night had been quiet.  “You two done with your little feud over that thing with your Grandfather?” he asked amicably.

Surprised, Scott looked at the man; relieved to see the grin.  Jelly had obviously spent a lot of time bending the sheriff’s ear.  I’m done,” he answered.  “But Johnny...?”

“Johnny, what?” Val inquired.

“He’s up to something,” the blond answered.  “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will.  Hopefully before he gets in trouble with Murdoch.”  Or Jelly, or Cip. 

Val’s expression sobered and he reached out, slapping the younger man’s arm lightly, his fingers closing around Scott’s wrist briefly then relaxing.  “You’re a good big brother, Boston,” he said, only half joking.  It had been a great thing when Murdoch Lancer had finally found his youngest son and brought him home; an even better thing for the kid that Scott had come home too.  Johnny Madrid, Val knew, had never had much of a chance for a childhood.  Johnny Lancer was making up for lost time.

Scott had taken out his watch.  It was ten o’clock.  They had been in town for almost five hours.  “Hold that thought, will you?  Johnny may not be feeling so charitable when I tell him it’s time to go.”  He shoved back his chair.

The lawman watched as Scott made his way in and out among the other tables as he headed for his brother.  Johnny was still busy sweet talking Miranda, doing a fine job of convincing her he wasn’t too drunk for a second trip upstairs.

Miranda  wasn’t buying it.  She also knew the youngest Lancer was broke.

“Johnny.”  Scott reached out, tapping his younger brother on the shoulder.

“Go ‘way.” The brunet responded without looking up.  “I’m busy.”

Scott turned his attention to the young woman seated at Johnny’s right.  “I’m sure Miranda will excuse us,” he said.  He dug into his front pocket and pulled out a five dollar gold piece, rotating it between his fingers behind his brother’s back.

Miranda immediately stood up.  The blond-haired vixen, pink-cheeked and dimpled, bent forward to plant a wet kiss on Johnny’s forehead; at the same time plucking the coin from Scott’s fingers.  “‘Night, Johnny,” she whispered.  “Next week?”  Her tone was actually hopeful.  She turned then, stuffing the coin into her bosom, and then flouncing her way across the room to the bar.

Johnny turned to stare up at his brother.  “What the Hell just happened?” he asked.

Scott took his brother’s arm and helped him to his feet.  “I have no idea, brother,” the blond lied.  “But it is time to go home.”  He picked up Johnny’s hat from the table and placed it on the younger man’s head.

Repositioning the Stetson, Johnny took a quick look around the room.  “Don’t see nobody else in any big hurry to leave,” he griped.

“Nobody else has to deal with Murdoch,” Scott reminded.  He looped his right arm around his brother’s shoulder and guided him towards the door.  “Which reminds me.  Do you still have that gold piece Murdoch gave you to get your haircut?”

Johnny pulled up short.  “He didn’t say nothin’ about bringin’ back any change.”

Scott reached out with his left hand, turning his brother sideways so they were facing each other.  “You didn’t get your hair cut,” he reminded, “so it’s not a question of change.”  He tried again.  “Do you have…”

The brunet heaved a sigh.  “Nope.”

From the table in the far corner, Val watched as Scott reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a coin and shoved it into this brother’s shirt pocket.  A slow smile crawled across his countenance, the dark eyes warming.  They make quite a pair, he mused, the college boy and the street-wise pistolero.

Former pistolero, he reminded himself.  Thank God.


Murdoch Lancer was at the hearth, rearranging the logs he had added to the waning fire.  Spring had arrived in the valley; the south-westerly winds bringing the Pacific’s warm humidity across the land during the day; the same wetness cooling the air at night and bringing the damp chill.  He watched as the flames took hold, rubbing his hands and welcoming the warmth.

Teresa came into the room, carrying the coffee service.  She smiled up at her guardian, extending the tray.  Murdoch reached out, pouring himself a cup; smiling slightly as he studied the girl’s face.  “You’re thinking about the ink,” he laughed.

She laughed.  “I’m thinking about how angry Maria was when she saw the pot and the cups.  We did finally get them clean, though.”  She turned slightly, making room on the drink table and putting the tray down. 

“Are you sorry?” Murdoch said, nodding at the china.  “It would have given you a good reason to buy something new.”

The young woman shook her head.  “I love this china, Murdoch.”  Her voice lowered, and she caressed the cup, her fingers lingering over the delicate blue blossoms and the intricate patterned rim that was edged with gold.”  It’s always been here, for as long as I remember.”  She blushed.  “I broke a saucer once…”

“And cried for two days,” the older man finished, remembering.  Teresa had been all of ten.  He reached out, stroking the girl’s cheek with the back of his hand.

There was a commotion in the atrium as the front door opened; the scuffling of feet and the jingle of spurs, along with some obviously good-natured joshing.  “Yep,” Johnny was boasting, “Little ole Miranda told me I gave her the best…”

“Boys!”  Knowing where the conversation was going, Murdoch called out to his sons.  “Teresa’s brought a fresh pot of coffee.  Come join us.”

Teresa smiled as she saw her brothers.  True to his word, Scott had gotten his brother home well before Murdoch locked the doors for the night.  She had heard Johnny’s boasting, and decided to do a little sisterly teasing.  “What was it this…Miranda told you, Johnny?  Is she new in town?”  This was way too much fun to stop.  She poured him a half cup of coffee and carried it to where he was standing beside the book case.  “When am I going to meet her?”  Coyly, she turned to Scott, who was watching her with a bemused on his face, and winked.  “Did you meet her, Scott?  Do you think Johnny will be bringing her home for supper?”  She turned back to Johnny.   Knowing damned good and well where her brothers had been, she continued with her little game.  She clapped her hands.  “Tomorrow!” she exclaimed, her smile growing as if she had been suddenly inspired.  “Johnny could bring her to church, and she could come back here for Sunday dinner!”

“T’resa.”  Johnny hadn’t touched his coffee.  When the girl didn’t respond, he tried again; his voice rising.  “T’resa!”  When he saw he wasn’t doing anything to curb her exuberance he tried again, spilling it out as fast as he could.  “You ain’t gonna meet her, Scott already knows her, I’m not bringin’ her home for supper,” he took a deep breath, “and I sure in Hell ain’t takin’ her to church!” he rattled off.

Teresa sidled up to him, taking his arm as she leaned forward.  “You left something out,” she murmured, resting her head on his shoulder.  She was toying with the storm strings from his hat, tugging them a bit.

The coffee seemed like a good idea, and Johnny took a long drink; but not before he smacked her fingers away from his hat strings.  “And what was that, T’resa?”

“Why, Johnny,” she said sweetly, “you forgot to tell Murdoch and I what you gave Miranda that she said was the best…”

The young man’s face reddened, and he was sweating.  It had nothing to do with the coffee.   He shoved the cup back into the girl’s hand.  “Jesus, T’resa!  It’s damned near 11:00 o’clock.  Ain’t it past your bed time?”

She smirked up at him.   “It’s Saturday night, Johnny!  And I’m not the least bit tired!”

“Yeah, well, I’m plumb tuckered out,” the younger man declared.  With that, he wiggled free of her grasp and turned back towards the hallway.


The brunet had just stepped up onto the tiled threshold leading to the stairwell.  Sighing, he turned around.  “Yeah, Murdoch?”

“You forgot to take off your hat,” the older man answered.

Johnny was fiddling with the storm strings.  “Didn’t get a chance to take it off,” he said.  “T’resa being so all-fired set on me havin’ that cup of coffee.”  He glanced at his brother.  “I’ll hang it up before I head upstairs.”

Murdoch had crossed the room.  He stood before his son, watching the young man fidget.  Reaching out, he lifted the Stetson off the younger man’s head; careful to allow for the rawhide strings.  He shoved the hat into his son’s hands.  “Haircut?” he asked.  He turned to his eldest son.

“Johnny said that Zeke’s shop was full,” Scott explained, proud that he wasn’t telling a lie.  Johnny had told him the shop was full.   “It is Saturday night.”  Another nugget of truth.

The Scot nodded.  And then, expectant, held out his hand.

Johnny dug into his pocket, and quickly fished out the ten dollar gold piece his brother had given him.  “Maybe next week,” he bargained, laying the coin in his father’s outstretched hand.  He smiled up at his father.

Scott was beside his brother now, his arm around Johnny’s shoulder.  “Sounds like a plan to me, brother,” he agreed, patting his sibling’s upper arm.

Murdoch balanced the coin in his palm.  He wasn’t really surprised that his youngest had avoided the haircut, but he was somewhat shocked the youth had not spent the cash.  “Next week, then,” he nodded.

Teresa swept by the three men.  In spite of her earlier claim that she wasn’t tired, she failed to hide a yawn.  She turned back, standing on her tip-toes to kiss Murdoch’s cheek.  “He’ll think of another excuse,” she warned.  “Good night.”

“Good night, darling,” Murdoch said, smiling.  The smile diminished somewhat as he eyed his sons; both of whom were a bit glass-eyed.  “You, too, boys,” he breathed.


“Guess I owe you one, big brother,” Johnny grinned.  They were in the hallway standing at the door to the younger man’s bedroom.

Scott gave his brother’s shoulder a gentle shake.  “Actually, little brother,” he grinned, “you owe me the ten, another fifteen for the book I ordered to replace Aggie’s -- it was a first edition, you know -- plus,” he was almost nose to nose with his sibling, “ the fifteen hundred,” he stressed the word, “I’ve arranged to pay Grandfather.”

Johnny’s upturned face registered total surprise, his mouth dropping open.  His eyes, however, were beginning to reflect a growing wariness.  “You paid off the old son-of…geezer?”

The blond’s smile was totally guileless.  “That’s what be brother’s do,” he stated matter-of-factly; “take care of baby brother’s peccadilloes.”

“Pecker-what?”  the younger man queried, remembering his father’s use of the word. 

Mistakes, faux pas, little misadventures…”  Scott replied.  He flecked a miniscule piece of lint from his brother’s left shoulder, close to the youth’s ear.

Johnny reached up, grabbing his brother’s wrist.  When it came to money, Scott and Murdoch were definitely of the same blood and mind: frugal and all business.  Murdoch would -- reluctantly -- grant an advance on wages, but if asked for a loan, he charged interest.  Johnny winced as he remembered the Old Man explaining the ins and outs of compound interest; all the head-spinning yammering about fees ‘computed on the accumulated unpaid interest as well as on the original principal’.  He sighed.  His life had been a hell of a lot less complicated when he just shot somebody and picked up the cash.  “And that’s gonna cost me…?” he asked suspiciously.

“A look at what you’ve been hiding in your room,” the other answered quickly.  “And I won’t charge you any interest on the loan.”

Johnny let go of his brother’s wrist.  Downstairs, from the Great Room, came the sound of Murdoch closing and locking the row of French doors.  He grinned up at his elder sibling.  “Could be I’ve just been playin’ with you,” he snorted.

“Nope.”  Scott said.

“I could just leave you hangin’” the youth countered.

“I’m just curious, Johnny.”

“Yeah.  Curiosity killed the cat, ya know.”  He grinned up at the man.  “Maybe I’ll just make you wait ‘til you get so curious you jimmy the lock.”

“Please,” Scott snorted.  “I told you I’m curious, not crazy.  The last time I picked a lock when you were up to mischief, Murdoch gave you a box full of tub toys, and I ended up in his study being lectured for intruding on your privacy.”  He smiled.  “Besides,” he dug into his shirt pocket, “I don’t have to pick the lock.”  When he withdrew his hand, he was holding on to a key.  “I lifted it from you when I gave you the gold piece.”

Johnny’s hand automatically went to his shirt front.  “Someday, brother, you’re gonna have to tell me where you learned all them bad habits.  And I ain’t buyin’ no story about Harvard.”  He grabbed the key and inserted into the lock.  “Old Man’s comin’.”

Scott hurriedly followed his brother across the threshold.   They stood together at the closed door, heads canted against the heavy oak, listening as their father thumped up the stairs and down the hall to his room.

The brunet turned and began stripping off his shirt.  He tossed it at the chair beside his bed; shrugging a bit at his near miss.  “You gotta swear you won’t say nothin’.”  His pants were next; he simply stepped out of them and kicked them aside.  Dropping down on one knee beside his bed, he reached underneath.

Scott watched as his brother pulled a fair-sized but compact wooden box from beneath the bed, grimacing a bit at the scraping sound.  And then he heard it.  Chattering.  “Johnny.  You didn’t.”  In two long strides he was across the room and standing next to his sibling.  He reached out, lifting the glass globe from the bedside lantern, picking up a sulphur tip matched from the stand and lighting it with his thumbnail.  He adjusted the wick until there was a soft glow that reached only as far as where his brother was kneeling.

The younger man’s head was bent, and he was tapping his fingers against the slats that formed a small trap door in the crate’s lid.  He was making a soft ticking sound with his tongue.  The chattering from inside the box intensified.  Opening the small lid, he reached in.  “Cute little bugger,” he whispered.  When he withdrew his hand he was holding a baby squirrel.

The blond’s chin dropped against his chest and he was shaking his head.  “How many?” he asked, not really wanting to know.

Johnny was stroking the creature; wincing a bit when the grey nipped the tip of his finger.  “Shoulda fed ‘em before we left,” he murmured.  He dropped the animal back into the cage.  “Six,” he answered.

Scott collapsed into the chair beside his brother’s bed.  “They’re rodents,” he announced.  “First cousins to mice.”  He thumped the back of his brother’s head with his forefinger.  “Rats.”

The younger man snorted.  He stood up, brushing his hands together; then sweeping his hands across his bare thighs.  The squirrel had left a little remembrance; a series of dark colored turds.  “Kinda dirty, though.”

“Where?” the blond demanded.  Just the one word, knowing his brother would understand exactly what he was asking.

Johnny flopped down on his bed; his weight causing the mattress to sway.  A flurry of muted chattering and the noise of clawed feet came as the infant tree squirrels protested his presence.  “Oak tree,” he answered.  He rolled over on his side, his head resting against the palm of his hand as he cocked his arm.  “Found ‘em when I got our boots back.”

Scott was leaning forward in the chair, raking his long fingers through his hair.  “May I remind you,” he began, “of what our father said regarding your propensity for rounding up strays and bringing them home?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “You’ve got to get rid of them, Johnny.”

The younger man was toying with the loose threads on the edge of his quilt; the new quilt Maria and Teresa had given him for his bed after the incident with the mountain lion cubs.  “Still givin’ em milk,” he announced.  “Hell, Scott, they didn’t even have their eyes full open when I brought ‘em up here.”

“You should have left them in the tree,” Scott admonished.  “Their mother would have come after them…”

Johnny snorted.  “Like that had a chance in Hell of happenin’.”  His own experience with motherly instincts had taught him otherwise.

Scott’s attention was now focused on the corner of the box that was sticking out from beneath the bed.  He toed it back into place, but not before noticing the right hand corner of the cage.  Bending forward, he lifted the edge of the quilt for a closer look.  Even in the faint lantern light, he could see where the animals had been gnawing at the wood.  “Turn them loose,” he ordered.

“Nope!”  The refusal came with the younger man’s usual brusqueness.  Then, his tone changing, “You gonna tell?”

Scott laughed, his brother’s sudden change in intonation delighting him; the abrupt nope firm and decisive, the you gonna tell? coming tentatively, almost as a plea. Why did he have the feeling he would have heard the same thing a hundred times over if they had grown up together at Lancer?

His mood changing, he reached out; his hand coming to rest on Johnny’s shoulder.  “I’m not going to tell,” he announced.  When his brother started to speak, he shushed him with a stern look.  “We’ve been home…”  God, he liked the sound of that word, “… for a little more than three months now, little brother.”  He was holding up three fingers.  “Twelve weeks, give or take.  Not counting the time you were recuperating, we’ve spent six of those twelve weeks under house arrest.”  He was not exaggerating.  Murdoch was a hard task master; more so than any commanding officer Scott had served under during the War.  “I rather enjoy our visits to Green River and Morro Coyo.  I’d like to continue making those trips.”

Johnny’s mouth pursed into a small pout as he considered what his brother was saying.  “Gimme a week,” he bargained.  He levered himself up off the bed.  “I’ve been slackin’ off on the milk.”  It was true.  He had suckled the kits by soaking bits of porous cloth in the extra milk he had wheedled out of Maria and Teresa, but they were taking it from a saucer now.  “Been givin’ em flaked oats and busted up acorns for the last couple of days.”  He smiled that smile, the one that always suckered the unsuspecting and the gullible.  Problem was, though, Scott was pretty much on to that trick.  Reaching out, he tapped his brother’s knee.  “One week.”

Giving up, Scott raised his hands in reluctant surrender.  “One week,” he agreed.  He stood up.  “You know that little statuette I have on my writing desk, Johnny?  The brass monkeys?”

Johnny eased himself back down onto the bed, mindful of the squirrels that were -- hopefully -- asleep beneath his bed.  “You mean the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil buggers?”

“Yes,” Scott answered, fighting the smile.  “You get caught this time, brother; you can consider me monkey number four.”

The brunet stretched, his entire body tensing, then relaxing; his left hand covering his mouth as he stifled a yawn.  No problema,” he muttered.

“And don’t forget to keep locking the door.”  Scott cautioned.  He may as well have been talking to a dead man.  Johnny was already asleep.


Every morning at breakfast, Scott would hold up his hand.  One finger on the first day, and then two, then three.  They were on day four when it happened.


Johnny had slept late that morning.  He’d spent the day before dealing with a green broke filly; a little sorrel with four white stockings, a blazed face and a flaxen mane and tail.  Teresa had taken a fancy to the thing, and Murdoch had given in to her whining. 


So Johnny had spent a long afternoon acquainting the filly with a saddle and bridle.  It was the first horse he had worked with that he truly didn’t like.  The animal was a sneaky little bitch.  He had worn out his entire vocabulary of swear words, in English and Spanish; and a few phrases he had made up in both languages after she tried to bite him.  And all the time, in the back of his mind, was the bit of doggerel all horse wranglers knew by heart:  One white foot, buy him; two white feet, try him; three white feet, deny him.  Four white feet and a stripe down his nose, knock ‘im in the head, and feed ‘im to the crows.


By the time dinner rolled around, the crows were sounding like a pretty damned good option.


He went to bed that night sore in places he’d forgotten he had.  The filly had damned neared tore off his shirt sleeve, and he had a line of ridges across his forearm where she had raked him with her teeth.  He’d been less than gentle when she tossed back her head in an attempt to break his nose; and he added a martingale to her rig.  His first thought had been to crack her between the ears with a glass bottle full of water; but Murdoch had put a swift halt to that plan.


So here he was dragging his dead ass out of bed.  Murdoch had pounded on his door when he passed by, followed by Scott’s quick knock.  And then came Teresa.  She rattled the door knob and then banged on the panels.  She left; but she didn’t give up.  He could hear her yelling from the bottom of the stairs:  Johnnnny…You get down here right NOW, Johnny Lancer!!  He shook his head.  Once a month, like clock work, the girl would have these stupid spells where she went plumb loco, snapping at everyone; even Murdoch and Scott.  Funny thing was, no one but him ever said anything to her; and when he did, the Old Man and Scott chewed his ass out.


She screamed his name again.  That was all it took to set Murdoch to hollering.  “JOHN!!”


He fumbled with the last of his buttons, panicking when he heard the Old Man start up steps.  Tucking in his shirt tails, he swung open the door; almost colliding with his father as he sprinted into the hallway.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.


Murdoch didn’t say anything.  He just jabbed a long finger at the staircase, taking a swipe at his son’s rear end as the boy took off.  Fortunately for the youth, the man missed.


He stumbled into the dining room, pulling at his right boot as he hopped towards his chair.  It was bread-baking day -- something he looked forward to -- except for the part about not being able to eat in the kitchen.


Scott grinned across at his brother and toed out the younger man’s chair.  He held up four fingers, and then shoved a full mug of coffee across the table.  “Have you given her a name yet?” he asked.


Gingerly, Johnny took his seat.  “Yeah,” he breathed.  “Bitch.”  He reached out, taking a long sip of the coffee; not giving a damned that it burned his tongue.  It helped him forget the pain in his ass.  He shot a dark look at Teresa.  One of them, anyway.


“So when do you think I’ll be able to ride her?” the girl asked, her tone snappish.


Johnny stabbed the chorizo Maria had just placed on his plate.  “I could saddle ‘er up for ya this mornin’,” he groused.  He smiled at the idea; Teresa eating a pound of dirt, maybe losing a couple of her pearly white teeth.


Teresa smiled; the grin quickly turning into a frown.  “Cip told Murdoch she threw you twice yesterday.”


The brunet was chewing his sausage, savoring the tang.  “Once,” he said, gesturing with his fork.  “Second time, I decided to get off before she stopped dancin’.”  He smiled sweetly at his foster sister.  “Maybe she just needs a woman’s hand,” he suggested snidely.


Murdoch had taken his seat at the head of the table.  “Teresa will not be riding her until she’s completely schooled,” he declared.


Johnny thought about that for awhile.  “Lemme see if I got this straight.”  He started to scratch his right ear; reconsidering before his father could remind him about getting a haircut.  “It’s okay for me to get bit,” he rolled up his sleeve, “get my brains shook outta my head, and get tossed on my ass,” he dropped his hand to his rear.  “But little miss prissy here…”




Scott reached for the coffee pot and refilled his brother’s cup.  There were times when it was best not to talk to his brother until he had at least filled his belly.  “She is a pretty little thing,” he said.


“The horse,” Johnny surmised.  “T’resa, on the other hand…”


“John.”  Again, the single word from the head of the table; a bit louder this time.


He smiled.  “Just funnin’, Murdoch.”  He turned the grin on his sister.  “She’s feisty,” he said.  “You, too.”


Teresa blushed.  “I just like her, Johnny.  I think she’s special.”  Her mood had changed again, her smile was almost sunny.   “Like Barranca.”


That one did him in.  “There’s only one Barranca,” he murmured.


The young woman was toying with her eggs; pushing little bits of toast into the yellow yolks.  “Have you given her a name yet?”


Johnny had to bite his lip.  Scott, fearing his brother would answer her, almost choked on his coffee.  “Not yet,” the brunet lied.


Murdoch picked up the newspaper.  Breakfast was the only meal where he allowed any distraction at the table.  “Wheat prices are up,” he said.


Scott turned to look at his father.  He smiled, knowingly.  “That means the price of beef will increase.”  Harlan Garrett had been a good teacher.  Scott had learned early to read the patterns in the markets; well enough that he had made some of his own investments and had done quite well.  He was about to address his father again when a flash of something grey caught his eye; a scurrying across the carpeted floor that caused him no small degree of alarm, a second streak of mud-colored charcoal following rapidly behind.  Surreptitiously, he extended his long right leg; giving his brother a nudge with his foot, his eyes flickering in the direction of the doorway.


Maria was humming.  Her arms were coated with a fine dusting of white as she kneaded the mound of dough against the floured bread board.  She had prepared the yeast bread dough the night before; allowing it to rise overnight in the warmth of the cabinet above the stove.  The Patrón had a fondness for her fresh bread, and Johnny…


…Johnny could smell her bread baking miles away from the hacienda.  She smiled at the thought.


She raised her hand, brushing away a stray lock of hair that had escaped the thick braid that crowned her brow.  Grabbing at the damp towel that hung from her apron pocket, she wiped her fingers and resumed the kneading.  She turned the dough, punched it with her fist, and flipped it a second time.  Such was her gusto, she knocked her wooden rolling pin from the table; a small curse coming as she saw the thing roll out of sight beneath her work table.  Sighing, she bent down. 


The woman swept her long arm beneath the bottom platform, grunting a bit.  Then, rearranging her long skirt and petticoats, she dropped down on one knee, straining forward until her cheek was almost touching the tiled floor.  She peered under the table. 

Something peered back.


She saw it then.  The twitching whiskers, the moist little black nose; the beady eyes.  Standing up with an agility that belied her age, she screamed.  Ratones! RATONES!!”   (Rats!  RATS!!)


As one, Murdoch, Scott and Johnny rose up from the table.  Pandemonium reigned as Teresa joined them and they bolted for the kitchen door.


Maria was standing with her rear pressed firmly against the breakfast table; her eyes wide, her right hand patting heavily above her left breast.  She was gasping for breath.  Allí!” (There!) she said, pointing a shaky finger at her work table.


Murdoch reached the woman’s side in one swift move; his arm going around her shoulder as he followed her gaze.  He saw nothing.  Until the squirrels skittered out from their hiding place to disappear into the pantry.


Johnny was backing out of the room, feeling his way along the wall until he came to the door.  He did an immediate about face, one foot poised as he headed for the hallway.  Two more squirrels skimmed across the tile; their twins following close behind.


Scott stared at the floor, his eyes lifting to meet his brother’s.  He did a series of quick, fluid motion with his hands; covering first his mouth, then his ears, then his eyes.  When he took his hands away from his face, Johnny was no where to be seen.


“JOHN!!”  Murdoch roared.  He gestured for Teresa, physically shoving Maria into her arms, and then headed for the door.   Scott quickly moved out of the way.


The youngest Lancer son was beating a hasty retreat towards the barn.  He passed Cipriano without a word; knocking Jelly off his feet as he crossed in front of the corral.  It was just his bad luck he had stabled Barranca the night before; leaving the sorrel filly on her own in the pen.

Jelly right himself; dusting off his pants and giving his suspenders a tug as he followed the youth.  “Johnny,” he called.  Huffing, he picked up his gait; turning slightly as he saw Murdoch bearing down on him.  “Boss…” he started, “…that danged boy of your’n...

“Not now, Jelly!” the big Scot bellowed; intent on catching his youngest.

Scott was following in his father’s wake.  He repeated his father’s words.  “Not now, Jelly!!”  The blond was intent on catching his father; hopefully before the older man caught his brother.

Cip stood his ground, stroking his chin.  He turned slightly as Teresa came up beside him.  Maria was with the girl; looking extremely harried and mumbling under her breath.  His eyebrows raised in shock as he heard the words the older woman was using; none that he had ever heard her use before.  Wisely, he addressed the younger woman.  “Teresa?”

She sighed.  “Squirrels,” she said; just the one word.

The segundo patted her arm.  “Juanito?” he asked.

Maria nailed him with a look that could have curdled fresh goat’s milk.   “¿Quién más?” (Who else?)


It took the remainder of the day to round up the strays.  It was amazing how crafty and downright devious the small rodents were, Scott thought.

Maria stood at the doorway to her kitchen, her arms folded; the broom resting securely beneath her right elbow.  She watched as the Patróns sons checked the entire pantry, watched as they closed and secured the panty door.  Then, her eyes narrowing, she watched as both young men used sticks to probed the hanging cabinets; inside and out.  She pointed angrily to the floor, her silence worse then any shouting.  

Johnny made the mistake of bending over to look beneath the work table.  The next thing he knew, Maria smacked him across the rear with the straw end of the broom; hard enough he could see the corral dirt rising up from the butt of his britches.  “Damn, Mamacita!!  That hurts!” 

She said nothing.  Just harrumphed; threatening to use the broom again when he got close a second time.  Hands raised, he backed away from her, changing places with Scott.  “Where’s the Old Man?” he asked when he finally got his brother’s attention.

“He just went upstairs,” the blond answered.

Johnny felt a brief wave of relief; and then it hit him.  He’d been in such a hurry to get down stairs, he’d forgotten to lock the door.  “Oh, fuck.”  He grabbed his brother’s arm.  “I forgot to lock the door…”

Scott was shaking his head.  “You know, brother,” he muttered, “one of these days we’re going to have a very long talk about…

“JOHN!”  The voice thundered down from above.  It was like being summoned by God.  A very pissed off God.

“The squirrels aren’t here, Maria,” Scott said.  “I promise.”

Johnny was trudging towards the stairs.  He was dragging his feet when he reached the hallway, moving even slower as he began to climb.  By the time he reached his room, Murdoch had already found the cage.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to explain this?”  Murdoch held up the cage.  The trap door was still secure, but there was a sizeable hole in one corner.

Johnny debated answering back with a firm nope, changing his mind when it appeared the Old Man was going to give the cage a shake.  “I don’t think…”

Murdoch nailed him with a grim look; the older man’s eyes the color of slate.  “Obviously,” he snapped.  He shook the box.  Something inside the crate clattered, a stream of sour milk pouring from the damaged corner; small, brown cigar-shaped pellets intermingled with the liquid: like logs being sent down a white-water sluice.

Curious, the big Scot opened the small, hinged door.  He stuck his hand inside the cage, withdrawing a piece of flowered, bone china.  The saucer was chipped on one side; gnaw marks marring the fragile porcelain.  “I’ll let you explain this to Maria and Teresa,” he fumed.  “How many?”

Johnny hated that question.  It hadn’t sounded half bad when Scott had asked it; but now…  “Six,” he answered.

Murdoch gave a curt nod of his head.  “Six,” he echoed.  It seemed like a fair number.  “Six squirrels.  Six weeks.”

“Six weeks!?”  Johnny kicked at a wadded up white sock.  “Jesus Christ, Murdock!!”

The patriarch canted his head, his chin jutting forward and his mouth clamped shut.  He started to speak, reconsidered; and then opened his mouth.  The sound that reached Johnny’s ears was not what he expected: somewhere from beyond the bedroom came a high-pitched scream that reminded the youth of his time in Mexico; when the ‘Pache were raiding. 

He turned, heading for the hallway, his father right behind him.  When the reached the Great Room, it was to find Teresa chasing yet another animal.  She had been the first one to catch one of the grays, and she in hot pursuit of another.  The animal had managed to elude her, and was bounding across the floor.

Johnny watched as the small animal leapt from one piece of furniture from another, spreading its legs and appearing to fly.  The back of the couch, the drink table (oh, shit, there goes the Talisker’s) to one of the blue chairs.  Next, the back of a dining room chair, then the length of the table for a running start; another leap to the back of a chair, and then up to the very top of the book case.

“Get it, Johnny,” Teresa shouted.

As if he had anything to get it with.  He watched helplessly as the squirrel ran rampant among the bric-a-brac; successfully sinking one of Murdoch’s ships before plunging toward the stuffed pheasant.  The mounted bird stopped the squirrel in its tracks, but only temporarily.  The rodent stood up on its hind feet and began to spar with the bird.  Teresa shoved a chair from the table, kicking off her boots before standing up on the cushioned seat.  She was carrying a fire place poker, and she swung it at the beast.  He turned away from her, disappearing behind the bird, then reappearing again to bark at her.  Once again, it spun around, just as she reached up, determined to grasp the creature by the neck.  The chattering sound increased as the animal took one more leap; impudently flicking its tail.  The squirrel landed on Teresa’s head; just long enough to drop a load of crap; a mixture of  piss and pellets cascading down across her forehead.

Johnny clamped his hand over his mouth to stop the laughter as the girl’s eyes suddenly crossed and she found herself nose to nose with the rodent.  She screamed a second time, this time even louder than before.

Scott raced into the room.  He was carrying a collection of small cloth bags Maria had given him; sugar and flour sacks.  He arrived just in time to make a flying catch as the squirrel leapt from Teresa’s head.  “That make’s three!” he shouted.

One squirrel was actually clever enough to make a break for the French doors.  It made it as far as the back garden, only to reverse course and race back for the living room; one of Johnny’s stray dogs hot on the trail.

Jelly came through the front door just as the dog made a grab for the squirrel; both animals running between Jelly’s bowed legs.   For the second time that day, the old handyman found himself flat on his keister; both beasts running up and across his chest and shoulder before heading out into the yard.

They found another squirrel attempting to hide in the fireplace; the morning fire already banked as the furry rodent tried climbing up the chimney.  Vindictively, Teresa tossed a new log and some kindling on the coals.  She added a pile of clumped up paper; standing back with her hands on her hips as the kindling and paper caught and the flames began rising.  To make sure her job was complete; she opened the damper to draw more air.  The pungent odor of burnt hair wafted through the room; the skittering of the singed squirrel fading as the animal made it way up the shaft.    

Teresa was completely composed when she stepped back from the hearth.  Daintily lifting her skirt, she stepped cautiously across the floor, avoiding the broken glass beside the drink table.  “I’m going upstairs to take a bath,” she announced coolly, “and to shampoo my hair.”  Then, as she stepped by her dark-haired brother her mood changed; her tone and manner imperious,  “You better have the other two captured by the time I get downstairs, Johnny Lancer.  Or else.”

Squirrels five and six proved more elusive.  Where the others had seem to run in pairs, the last hold outs preferred to run amok as individuals.

One took refuge under the grandfather clock.  Murdoch managed to corral that animal; simply tipping the clock forward; the clanging chimes spooking the kit.  As it wriggled it’s way from beneath the heavy oak base, Murdock simply reached down and grabbed it behind the neck; much as he would a venomous snake.  He added the animal to Scott’s collection.

It was up to Johnny to catch number six.  He asked the family to leave him alone, telling them he had decided to use a new tactic.  Risking a trip to the kitchen, he raided Maria’s store of shelled hickory nuts.  He’d seen the little shit sticking its nose out from beneath the couch.  Sitting down with his legs spread in a wide “V”; boots firmly pressed against the bottom edge of the sofa, he began making the ticking sound with his tongue; grinning when the squirrel actually responded.  He tossed a shelled nut onto the floor, just at the place above his ankles. Warily, the little rodent came out.  Johnny kept tossing the bits of nuts; bringing the squirrel nearer and nearer.  His ankles, his calves, his knees, his thighs.  Yep.  Just a bit closer.  He dropped the final small pile of hickory nuts between his legs, just below his crotch.

Cautiously, Scott approached the couch, rising up on his tiptoes to look over the back at his sibling.  “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, brother,” he said softly as he watched Johnny deposit the last of the hickory nuts.

“It’s workin, Scott!  The little bugger sure likes these…”   There was a sudden pause, a sharp intake of air; and Scott watched as his brother’s back suddenly stiffened in great pain, “…NUTSSS!!”  The last word came through clenched teeth.

Scott moved quickly to his brother’s side.  The squirrel had devoured the pile of hickory nuts, and in its pursuit of more food, had run head on into the smooth leather that was stretched taut across Johnny’s family jewels.

Swiftly, Scott moved forward, his hands closing around the squirrel’s shoulders.  “Oh, Johnny,” he breathed sympathetically, “that’s got to hurt…”  Using his thumbs, he forced the rodent’s mouth open.

Johnny fell backwards against the hearth, his hands protectively wrapped around his damaged privates.  He was still lying on the floor when Murdoch came back into the room. 

“What happened here?” The tall Scot demanded.

Scott was stuffing the last squirrel into the cloth sack.  “Johnny caught it by feeding it nuts.”  His felt his neck and face flushing as he realized the dual meaning of his words, and he had to bite his lower lip to keep from laughing.

“Nuts?” Murdoch asked.  “You mean we could have been luring these things out and catching them with nuts?”

“That was the plan, Murdoch.  Johnny’s plan.”  Scott struggled to keep a straight face.  He was feeling pretty disloyal at the moment; and his ribs were beginning to hurt.

“Johnny’s plan,” the older man echoed.  “What went wrong?”

“Well, sir, there are nuts, and then there are… nuts…”  He nodded at his brother.  At his brother’s crotch.  Johnny’s hands were stills clasped around the family jewels, and it was obvious he was in pain.

“Send Walt in to get Sam,” Murdoch breathed, shaking his head in disbelief.  How the hell was he going to explain this to Sam?


“Ice,” Sam Jenkins announced.  “You’ll need to wrap it in a towel.”  He peered up at Murdoch over the rim of his glasses.  “To prevent any swelling.”

Eager to get out of the room, Scott headed for the bedroom door.  “I’ll take care of it, sir.”  He didn’t know what had been more humiliating for his younger brother: the squirrel bite, the fact Murdoch had carried him to his room; or Sam’s examination.  Or his own failed attempts to keep a straight face.

Murdoch risked a look at his youngest.  Johnny had pulled the blankets completely up to his chin and he was staring hard at the ceiling.  “How much damage, Sam?” he asked.  He still couldn’t believe what had happened.

The physician was stroking his chin; thoughtful.  He wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question.  Closing his bag, he nodded towards the bedroom door; following after the rancher.  He remained silent until Murdoch pulled the door shut.  Like Scott, he was having difficulty keeping a straight face.  “It’s not as though I’ve had any extensive experience with this type of injury…”  His lips were trembling, the corners of his mouth quirking up; smile lines creasing his weathered face.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch,” he snorted, unable to stop the soft laughter.  “It just that, when I think the boy can’t do anything to surprise me, he…”  He shook his head.  “How on earth…?”

The tall Scot led the way down the hallway.  “Strays,” he answered.  “Johnny managed to find himself a half dozen baby squirrels.”  He turned his head, eyeing the doctor; almost daring the man to laugh.  “You saw the state Maria was in.”  They had reached the head of the stairs.  “I need a drink,” Murdoch announced suddenly.

Sam trailed behind as the big man marched down the stairs.  Right about now, he needed a drink, too.  “It’s nothing serious,” he stated.  “The skin wasn’t broken.”  He allowed a small smile.  “Those leather pants he favors do have some advantages.”

An unopened bottle of Talisker’s sat on the drink table behind the couch; occupying the space the leaded glass decanter had once stood atop the silver tray.  Murdoch nodded to one of the blue, overstuffed chairs.  He worked the cork free from the bottle; pouring two generous tumblers of Scotch. 

Sam reached out, taking the proffered glass.  He eased his long frame into the nearest chair, waiting to take a drink until Murdoch joined him.  “He’s bruised.  He’s going to be very tender for the next day or two.”  He shrugged. “It’s something akin to a low blow in a bar fight,” he reasoned.

Murdoch sat down; stretching his long legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles.  He frowned as he heard the sound of a commotion from the upstairs; Johnny’s loud protests, Scott’s deeper, more controlled baritone; the sound of a closing door.  “That boy’s going to be the death of me,” he muttered.

This time, Sam didn’t even make an attempt to stop the laughter.  “I have noticed your hair has gotten a bit grayer,” he observed.  Then, he mood changing.  “Have you ever regretted them coming home?” he asked.

The big Scot inhaled.  “I thank God every day I have them back,” he answered truthfully.  He smiled across at his old friend.  “I also thank God that He didn’t see fit to give me two sets of twins.”

Scott stepped down into the room.  He had heard everything that his father had just said, both pleased and amused at the man’s words.  “Oh, I don’t know, Murdoch,” he smiled, helping himself to a measure of Scotch.  “Two of me wouldn’t be much of an encumbrance, but two Johnnys?”  He shook his head at the thought, taking a long swallow of the liquor.  Turning, he leaned against the back of the couch, resting his buttocks against the thick upholstery.  “Sam,” he ventured.  “You keep a record of your patients care, a journal?”

The physician looked up at the younger man.  “Yes.”  He glanced across at Murdoch.  “For accounting purposes,” he joshed, “as well as a record of their treatment.  Why?”

The blond took another sip of whiskey.  “I was just wondering how you plan on documenting Johnny’s latest misadventure.”

Sam saluted the young man with his glass; holding it up and indicating he could use a refill.  “I’m going to start a separate journal for your brother,” he said.  “I have a feeling I’ll be needing it.”

Murdoch held up his glass, too; and Scott did the honors for both men.  “Did Jelly take care of the squirrels?” he asked.

Scott’s head dipped slightly.  “Yes, sir,” he answered.  “He said they are going to make a delightful stew.”


Johnny was working on Maria’s planter.  After two days with a seemingly never ending supply of chipped ice cooling his cajones, he had finally convinced Murdoch he was recovered enough to be allowed outside.  For all the fuckin’ good it did him.  He was still number one on the Old Man’s shit list. 

One thing he had learned, though.  It was a good idea to pretend to be sleepin’ when Murdoch was lurking about.  Bein’ awake and confined to a bed just gave the Old Man a better chance to chew out his ass.

There, of course, had been a new list of rules.  No more strays.  Scott had been a smart ass about that one; had given him a book all about zoology with a list of every kind of animal and a warning that not one creature in the book was allowed.  About a hundred more rules followed that one; don’t upset Maria, don’t tease Teresa; ya ta da, ya ta da, ya ta da. 

And that’s when he got in trouble.  Again.  ‘Don’t suppose you could write that all down?’ he had muttered.  And Murdoch had heard him.  That had been good for a half-hour rant, along with a thinly veiled threat: “And don’t think for a minute, young man, that you’re not so old you can’t have your backside warmed!!”      

He watched as the two wagons pulled into the court yard; Cipriano motioning for his sons to pull up to the staked-out area adjacent to the old adobe guard house.  Reaching out, he tapped his elder brother’s arm as Scott came into the courtyard.  “What the Hell’s all that?” he asked, pointing in the direction of the wagons; both of which were well stacked with varying lengths of recently milled timber.  Not only was there an abundance of inch thick planking and two by fours, there were four by four and six by six beams.

Scott was trying hard not to smile.  A long tube of neatly rolled, rubber banded paper was  tucked between his left elbow at his side; and he lifted his hand to flick a speck of yard dust from the front of his dark blue shirt, skillfully avoiding his brother’s eyes.  “That, my boy, is what’s left of the oak tree along with some additional lumber; and a portion of the extra work Murdoch has planned for you,” he answered.

The brunet’s eyes narrowed.  He already had a long list of chores the Old Man had thought up.  “He figurin’ on me whittlin’ him a life-time supply of toothpicks?” he groused.  “So what we buildin’?”  he asked suspiciously.

Scott withdrew the long tube of paper from beneath his arm; removing the rubber band and allowing the sheet to unroll across the top of remainder of the oak tree.  He secured the carefully sketched plans with a rock at each corner.  “Something Cip and Jelly suggested we need,” the blond answered; pretending to study the drawings.  “After everything that’s happened, Murdoch agrees.”

Johnny’s gaze was fastened on his elder brother’s face as he tried to read his expression; which was pretty well hidden by the brim of the older man’s Stetson.  But he could see the smile.  “And that is?” he pressed.

“A woodshed,” Scott answered.  “Your own personal woodshed.”



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