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…
is a dish best served cold. Or at
least, on time.
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…
still form at repose in the center of his bed.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
gave his youngest son a shake, and then bodily lifted him off the floor so
they were eye to eye. “Calm
down!” he ordered.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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?”
dug into his own eggs, which he had just dosed with a generous amount of salsa.
Saying nothing, he passed the silver topped shaker.
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.
nada,” the younger man called, still laughing.
thus it began.
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.
waved and smiled across at his brother. “How
many more, Johnny?” he called cheerfully.
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.
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?”
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.
‘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.
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…”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
slipped through the door. “You
sound just like the Old Man,” he grinned.
“Need a tie,” he added.
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?”
‘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?”
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?”
says she’s one of those nice
girls,” Johnny snorted. “How
much fun can that be?”
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.”
laughed. “We talkin’ about
girls here, or a case of the clap?” he teased.
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?”
Johnny frowned a bit at the tie and then shrugged.
“See you downstairs,” he said.
He disappeared into the hallway.
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
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!
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.
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.
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…
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…
forgot to check your gloves,” Scott grinned slyly.
The saddle creaked as he shifted slightly.
frowned up at his sibling. His
gloves were in the back of the wagon; right where he had left them after
also left them there when he’d taken a trip into the bushes to take care of
you do, stuff ‘em full of cow shit; a couple spiders in the fingertips?”
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.
brunet moved to the back of the wagon. His
gloves were just laying there, exactly where he had left them.
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.
laughter faded into the distance to be lost among the lowing of cows.
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
what his brother was doing,
he realized; proud of himself. Fuckin’
with my mind. No pranks; just the
worry there might be one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ain’t gonna fly, he
mused. No way in Hell old Boston’s gonna come out ahead in this game.
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.
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.
This had to be somethin’ -- what was the word Scott was always usin’
He smiled. Tomorrow was
Saturday. Murdoch would be headed
over to Aggie’s for supper, and Scott would be plannin’ on goin’ into
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 Patrón’s 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.
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.
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
she cautioned, turning around and shaking the spoon in his face.
mamacita,” he laughed, raising
both hands and backing up. “Just
wanted to see if I could help.”
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.
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.
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!
surrendered the bottle. The moist
spot on his forefinger and thumb spread as he rubbed them together.
“What’s it for?”
was carefully adding a few drops to the kettle the younger man had just placed
on the table. “To make things
white,” she answered.
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.
the clothes,” she snorted, nodding at the pile of underwear and socks.
“It takes only a small bit, and you must be careful.”
that, the youth tried -- for a second time -- to clean the indigo stains from
his fingers. “And this?” he
asked, displaying his hand.
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.
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.
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 long as he was prepared, he knew he could cope.
The important thing was not to
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.
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.
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.”
wasn’t aware Johnny and I were racing,” he grinned.
“You’ve picked out what I’ll be wearing?” he teased.
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
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.”
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.
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
would still bear watching.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Johnny?” he asked quietly.
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…”
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
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.
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?”
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…”
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.
was also a man on a mission.
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
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.
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
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…”
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.
reached out and took the coin. “I
can do that,” he said. He
pocketed the coin and resumed raking.
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.
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.
time it was to open the back door of the bordello.
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.
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?
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.
lightly on her door, he waited; slipping inside when she called out a soft ‘come
on in…’ “Rachel,” he
greeted, taking off his Stetson.
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.
leaned forward, kissing her forehead. “The
War is over,” he murmured, his breath whispering across her cheek.
“The North won.”
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!!”
patted her cheek. “Is Johnny
downstairs?” he asked.
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.
debated lying to her. “Rachel, I
need a favor.” His brow
furrowed. “Actually, a couple of
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
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.”
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?”
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….”
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.
one drink, and he’d pulled her back in the tub and washed her hair!
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?”
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.
only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been Maria not
catching him with the bottle of bluing.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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…”
was shaking his head. “You gonna
write a note to my Old Man,” he breathed.
“Tell him why I didn’t make it home?”
to help herself, she laughed. Then,
spying a brightly colored blanket lying atop her chest of drawers.
“I have this,” she offered.
reached out, taking the woolen blanket; a grin lighting his face as he
recognized the weaving. “Val
give you this?” he asked.
woman actually blushed. “And if
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.
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
returned the look, his eyes narrowing. “Had
a man tell me once that ‘war makes strange bedfellows,’” he accused.
That man had been Scott.
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.”
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.
Scott was going to pay. Big
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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?”
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
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…”
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
The young man’s mood was sullen.
He leaned back in his chair as Maria put a full plate in front of him.
jaws tensed, and he was about to say something when his eldest son spoke up.
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.
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.”
stared hard at his father’s back as the older man left the room.
“Church?” he croaked.
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.
need to pay attention,” the older man smiled.
shoved back his chair. “Oh,
I’ve been payin’ attention, Scott. I’ve
been payin’ real close attention…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.”
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…”
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.
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.”
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
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
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.”
shook his head. “We’re not at
war,” he breathed. “We’re
we are,” the brunet snorted.
Murdoch’s voice boomed into the morning quiet, and both young men
looked across to where their father was standing.
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
he actually liked Aggie. But…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
blond laughed. “He’s going to
be very busy,” he observed drolly.
can only hope,” Murdoch smiled, saluting the younger man with his glass.
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.
what?” Johnny came through the
door. He was tucking in his shirt
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.”
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
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.
Johnny turned to face his sibling, his lips forming a petulant pout.
“I know better’n to leave my clothes layin’ on the floor!”
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.
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…”
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…”
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.”
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
playfully boxed his brother’s ears. “Raven,”
he corrected. Giving Johnny a
final pat, he took his leave.
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
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
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!?”
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
your brother’s chores?” the older man queried.
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.
I can assume he’s free to work in the barn,” Murdoch surmised.
He moved aside as Teresa refreshed his cup of coffee.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
tempt me,” he warned.
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.
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.
Murdoch released his son’s wrist. “You’re
going to review the logging contract?” he asked, his words directed at his
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.”
Murdoch nodded. “Write something
up, and we’ll have John Randolph include it in the final contract.”
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.
stared after his youngest. “Your
brother is definitely not happy with me,” he mused.
just restless, Murdoch.” Scott
smiled. “Three days cooped up
inside the house hasn’t done much to help my disposition, either.”
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
the younger man looked up. “He
won’t be expecting a reprieve, Murdoch.”
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.”
nodded; the corners of his mouth quirking up in a small grin.
“Any hope of a reprieve from my assigned task?” he asked.
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.
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,
I’ll feed you to the fuckin’ crows!” the youth snarled.
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
left these on the bench in the hallway.”
Murdoch offered the gloves to his son.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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…”
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.
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.
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.”
put the pitchfork down; leaning it against a post as he watched José join the
other ranch hand. “Why?
He feelin’ guilty?”
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.”
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.
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!”
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
that she had that much to spare, he thought.
“C’mon, T’resa! I’ll
clean ‘em up after I’m done upstairs!”
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…”
brunet cut her off. “How’s
Maria feelin’?” he interrupted.
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!”
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.
young woman pulled away, rubbing her arm.
She was about to answer when Scott came into the hallway from the Great
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
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.”
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?”
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.
Teresa added. She stuck out her
tongue at Scott’s back. Planting
a quick kiss on Johnny’s cheek, she took her leave.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
then he poured the ink into the coffee pot.
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.
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.
made his exit just as heard his brother coming in from the main hallway.
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.
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.
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
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.
brunet moistened his upper lip with a slow roll of his tongue.
“Nope.” He nodded
towards the kettle. “What’re
you doin’?” he asked.
some water for tea.” Scott
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.”
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.”
felt Lady Luck kick him in the ass. “Murdoch
and Aggie?” he asked.
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
swallowed. “They’re in the
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.”
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.
eyes widened in shock as he beheld his father.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
where did you get the ink?” Murdoch asked; his eyes as cold as the winter
run off up on the Ribbon.
question surprised Johnny and it showed on his face.
What the hell does it matter? he
been shipped in from Inverness with the Scotch, and his ass would still be in
a sling. He was thinking hard
of an answer.
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?”
nervously shifted from one foot to the other.
“Scott’s desk, upstairs,” he answered; still wondering why the
Hell it made any difference.
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.
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
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.
was not amused. He turned to his
youngest son. “You…” he was
struggling to hold his temper, and it was a losing battle.
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.
room, John,” the big man declared. “You
will wait for me in your room.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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….”
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…”
dipped his head. “I’ll get the
toothbrushes and the powder,” he said, backing out of the room.
going to have a few words to say to you, too, young man!”
Murdoch called after his eldest.
outstretched, one hand on each side of the doorway, Scott hesitated; then
turned his head. “Should I wait
in my room?” he asked playfully.
waved him off.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
that…” Aggie had come forward
slightly in her seat on the corner of the long couch.
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.
thought about it for a moment. “Aggie?
Have you reconsidered about dinner?”
woman shook her head. “We
won’t be staying, Murdoch.” She
turned, smiling at Scott. “Have
you and Caroline finished your tea?”
The blond nodded. “Our
discussion regarding Poe, however, is another matter.”
He shifted his gaze to his father.
“About the table, sir?”
eat in the kitchen, Scott. It will
just be the two of us.”
brow furrowed. It had been several
hours since Johnny had been sent upstairs.
“And Johnny, sir?” he asked.
finished his brandy before answering. “He
won’t be joining us,” he replied.
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?”
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.
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.
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 …”
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.
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.
scares me, Aggie,” he finished. “I’m
afraid if I don’t impose some rules, if I don’t…
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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?”
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.
he continued, “you obviously didn’t do in this case.”
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.”
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.”
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.
know that Grandfather can be…”
pompous pain in the ass, Murdoch thought.
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…”
you woke from a sound sleep,” Murdoch intoned.
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.”
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.”
head was beginning to swim. “Which
is why you were late for dinner,” he surmised.
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…”
patriarch was almost afraid to ask, but was unable to resist.
“And then what happened?”
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.”
almost choked on his coffee. If
nothing else, his sons were creative. Their
warfare, however, had certainly escalated.
“And you retaliated how?” he asked.
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.”
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?”
aback by his father’s tone, Scott nodded.
there anything else you’d care to tell me?” Murdoch demanded.
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.
shoved back his chair and stood up. “Come
with me,” he ordered.
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.
bolted up from the bed, his heart racing.
He swallowed hard; surprised his brother was right behind the Old Man.
“Hey,” he called.
blond nodded. He followed his
father into the room.
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.
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.
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.
loomed above his sons. He reached
out, tapping his eldest on the shoulder. “Do
you understand what I’m telling
nodded. “You’ve more than made
your point, sir,” he answered.
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.”
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.
I prefer that you leave,” Murdoch
snapped. He pointed towards the
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,
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
of discussion, Scott
knew. “If you’ll excuse me
then, sir.” He stood up.
“Good night, Murdoch.”
older man nodded. “Good night,
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.
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.
invitin’ you in.”
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
English,” the younger man snapped.
“It would help,
Johnny, if I knew who used the word, and in what context.”
“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.”
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
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
blond answered; giving in to the need to laugh.
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
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’…”
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.
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…”
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.
Johnny waved a limp
hand at his brother. “Whatever,”
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.”
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.
then the letter arrived. The one
from Harlan Garrett’s attorney.
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.
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.
Johnny put the remainder of his biscuit back on his plate.
Somehow he wasn’t quite so hungry.
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,
“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.
matter is no longer open for discussion,’” the dark-haired one
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…”
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley’” Scott breathed,
relacing the leathers.
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.
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.
the fuck’s got the burr under your saddle?”
Johnny shot back.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
considered his brother’s words. “I’m
the one that used the glue,” he confessed.
“I’ll tell ‘im it was me.”
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.”
brunet’s eyes were dancing. “You
could take me to a whore house; show me how it’s done,” he ventured.
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…”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
-- 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
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.
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.
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.
Old Man had also told them the doors would be locked precisely at midnight.
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.
little brother?” the blond answered cordially.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
grinned across at the man. “Are
you contemplating loading him into a
wagon?” he asked, pointing to his younger brother.
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!”
hasn’t been drinking,” Scott observed drolly.
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
was six hours ago, Johnny,” Scott chided.
“You’ve been drinking non-stop since we arrived in town, and…”
drinkin’ when I went upstairs,” the dark-haired youth drawled.
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.
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.
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
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
oiled the hinges on the front door,” Scott announced; grinning across at his
head lifted. “What?”
And what the Hell did oiling the
hinges have to do with a light being on?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…”
looped a long arm around his younger brother’s shoulder.
“Take off your spurs,” he reminded, “and give me the key.”
had just stepped across the barn’s threshold.
Johnny pulled up short. “What
key?” he demanded.
blond felt himself suddenly held back by his brother’s abrupt stop.
“The key to the front door,” he answered.
have a key,” Johnny muttered.
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
lips pursed slightly. He didn’t
like where this was going. “In
my shirt pocket.”
the blond exhaled. “So what’s
the problem?” Expectant, he held
out his hand.
shirt,” the younger man answered hotly; the words coming in a hoarse
You were the one that told me I had to change clothes before we went to
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.
reached out, noting the way his brother jumped as he tapped his shoulder.
“Why can’t we use your key?” he asked.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
pulled away from his brother. “Well,
that’s pretty dumb! Why not?”
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
The younger man was leaning against the door jamb; arms folded, his
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
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.
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
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!”
It wasn’t a question. “Light
a match,” he ordered.
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.
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.”
blew out the match. “It ain’t
there,” he muttered, his shoulders drooping.
fingers stilled. “What the hell
do you mean, ‘it ain’t there’?”
saw you hide it,” the younger man answered.
“I gave it to Jelly.”
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?”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Johnny answered. Just the one
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.
you,” Scott muttered. “I
trusted you to carry your key.”
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.”
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.
me your boots,” Johnny whispered. He
jabbed a finger into the darkness above them.
“Need to stash them. Squirrel’s
are new boots,” Scott reminded his
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.”
Scott gave up the boots. He was
beginning to seriously wish he’d stayed home.
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…”
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.
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.”
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.
younger man swayed away again and then back.
He belched. “Some,” he
answered truthfully. “Give me a
boost up, will ya? I 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.
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!”
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,”
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
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
don’t have any money,” Scott smirked; for the second time that evening
giving the leather pouch holding his winnings a slight jingle.
me a dollar,” the younger man bargained.
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.
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
was it that made it feel so good?
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
tightened his grip on his brother’s arm and pulled a bit harder.
It wasn’t working. “It
appears, little brother, you are stuck.”
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.
backing out,” Scott suggested. He
put down the lamp and gave his brother’s shoulders a two-handed nudge.
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
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.
try sucking in, asshole!” the younger man groused as he continued to
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.
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
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
sir,” Scott began, forcing a smile he didn’t quite feel; only to find
himself rudely interrupted.
is your brother?”
eyes closed briefly. “About
Johnny…” Suddenly, his mouth
felt incredibly dry, and he licked his lips.
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.
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?”
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.”
know what you’re mad at me for,” the handy man huffed.
“Ain’t my rear end
that’s hangin’ outta your window!”
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?”
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.
elder Lancer was grabbing his hat. “You
didn’t think to use your key?” he growled.
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.”
threw up his hands in disgust. “You,”
he said, jabbing a long finger at his son, “come with me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
thought ruefully, going to be a very
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…”
cut the older man off with a single wave of his hand.
“Shut up, Jelly,” he ordered.
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.
rubberized tarp, he found, was another good idea.
He joined his father on the roof, relieved there was solid footing
against the slick tile.
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.
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?”
precisely,” the soft answer came; Scott’s deep baritone strangely subdued.
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!”
Old Man,” Murdoch growled, “is awake.”
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.
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
Under the spreading
The village smithy stands.
The smith, a mighty man is
With large and sinewy
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.
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.
no you don’t, boy!” Murdoch bellowed.
“You stay right where you are!!”
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.
His brother mouthed back.
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!”
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.
in hand, he was in the Great Room when his father came through the door.
“Sir,” he greeted.
frown deepened. “A little hair
of the dog?” he asked, making no effort to hide the sarcasm.
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.
your brother,” his father ordered.
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.
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
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
maybe,” the younger man groused. “You
told,” he accused.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
was pretty impressive,” Scott observed, reading his brother’s mind.
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.”
disembodied voice bellowed to them from the first floor.
visibly winced. “So how long you
think it’s gonna be this time?” he sighed.
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?”
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
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
was directly in front of his brother now.
“And just how much fun would that be?” he grinned; not the least
sighed. “A lot more amusing then
what's about to transpire,” he noted. He
gestured for his brother to precede him down the stairway.
surprisingly, Johnny declined the offer. “Age
before beauty,” he joked; bowing a bit.
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.
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,”
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.
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
Murdoch growled; his gaze firmly locked on his youngest son.
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
his eyes closed briefly, and he was shaking his head.
Recovering, he spoke to his father.
“Sir, about last night...”
raised his right hand, effectively cutting off his eldest son's words.
“What time did you get in?” he asked.
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
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.
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
blond laughed; the sound filled with sardonic humor.
he drawled. “That is
definitely not it.”
He headed for the kitchen, knowing his brother was right behind him.
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',”
had just taken a sip of coffee. He
put down the cup. “Just how much
did you drink last night?” he asked.
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'?”
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.”
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.
yet,” Scott smiled, watching as the young woman took her place next to
Johnny. “But the day is
took a long sidewise glance at his sister.
“And just what makes you think the Old Man's gonna kill us?” he
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.
funny?” Johnny scowled.
Teresa replied. “Hanging out of
Scott's bedroom window.” This
time she was giggling.
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.
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!”
ain't happenin',” Johnny snorted. He
strode away from the table into the hallway.
the Hell's my hat?”
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.
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.
shaded his eyes to watch the departing red breast.
“Left you a little token of her esteem, did she?” he queried.
funny, brother,” Johnny grumped.
could have been worse,” Scott smirked. “She
might have decided to build a nest.”
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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?”
Culhane,” Scott answered immediately; surprised by the question.
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.
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.”
still hadn't moved, although he was considering it.
“Why?” he asked.
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.
eyes narrowed. “He's going to be
taking down a tree,” he answered. “This
tree.” He pointed to the oak.
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.
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.
handed his brother the boots. “Managed
to get them back,” he grinned.
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.
smile was tentative, but filled with mischief; the sapphire eyes dancing.
“Wasn't easy. Almost
considered bringin' em back in through the window.”
was shaking out the boots; bits of old leaves and twigs littering the floor.
“What's this?” he asked, pointing to the debris.
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.
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.’”
need it, now that I know about the ladder he’s got stashed in the tool
shed,” Johnny snorted. “It was
kinda fun, though.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
younger man looked up at his brother. “What?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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
snorted. “That’ll be a cold
day in Hell.” He smiled again.
“Save me some hot water.”
Scott laughed; the rich baritone filling the room.
“Maria tell you she wouldn’t give you any supper until you cleaned
up?” he asked.
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.
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.
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.”
stopped mid bite. She eyed her
brother suspiciously and put down her fork.
“So what do you want?” she asked.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The woman prompted.
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.
chin dipped against his chest and he pretended to sulk; successfully hiding
the smile. “Whatever,” he
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
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.
else, your highness?” he asked, turning around and bowing slightly.
Small feathers from the duster were dropping to the floor and he toed
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?”
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?”
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.
Scott nodded. There was no way he
was going to pursue the issue, and he knew better than to believe his brother.
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.
was prattling on in between bites of cake.
“So, Johnny, are you going to make your bed tomorrow morning?” she
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
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.
that this mornin’,” Johnny laughed. “Figure
I got another week or two before I hafta do it again.”
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.
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,
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.
was already well through the second piece of cake.
“Feelin’ a need to get your Boston ass whupped?”
Murdoch warned. He nodded in
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’
laughed. “You don’t have any
money,” he reminded.
immediately turned to his father. “Any
chance of me gettin’ an advance?” he asked.
actually chuckled. And then he
wiped his chin, stood up, and left the room.
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.
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.
frowned. “I haven’t figured it
out yet,” she answered. “But I
know he’s up to something.”
stood up; dusting off his hands. “Maria
still keeping him busy?”
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.”
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.
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.
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…”
stomach did a small flip. He
wouldn’t, he thought. He
couldn’t, he hoped.
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
was standing beside Scott’s dresser. He
was holding on to the small leather pouch, and it was open.
what the Hell do you think you’re doing, little brother?” he barked.
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.
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.
money,” Johnny grimaced.
“Just…my lucky coin.”
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.
hand darted out. His nimble
fingers sorted through the coins and quickly closed around a silver peso.
grabbed his younger brother’s hand. “Show
me,” he demanded.
won’t like it,” the other responded. He
felt Scott’s fingers tighten. Giving
up, he opened his palm.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
head came up. “How?” he
haven’t decided yet,” the older man answered.
“Now, about all this milk I hear you’ve been conning out of
brunet stiffened. “I don’t
know what the Hell you’re talkin’ about.”
yes, you do,” Scott declared. He
gestured toward the hallway with his thumb.
“Your room,” he ordered. “Now.”
voice called out from below; sweet, melodious.
face lit up and he backed away from his brother.
“Comin’, Mamacita!” he yelled.
And then he sprinted for the doorway.
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
door was locked.
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.
was driving Scott crazy!
looked up, roused from his musings. “Scott.”
tells me you’re slacking off,” the blond announced.
He was toying with his Stetson; flicking a mote of barn dirt from the
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.”
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
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.”
raised his hand. “I’ll go over
to Aggie’s,” he volunteered; feeling generous.
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
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.”
brunet watched as his brother headed out the door.
“Hey, Murdoch?” he asked softly.
big Scot was reading a letter. “Yes,
son,” he answered.
pissed off would you get if I shot my big brother?”
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
right at the edge of the rectangular pit; poking with a stick to gauge the
depth of the remaining muck.
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.
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.”
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
tall red head waved his hand and nodded his head in agreement.
“Jelly gonna come along to help spread all that shit?” he grinned.
laughed. “Hell, Charlie!
Ya know Jelly’s an expert in spreadin’ bullshit.
This stuff,” he gestured toward the honey wagon, “should be no
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!”
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,
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.
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.
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
once, the old man was speechless. He
turned on his heel, and began marching across the barnyard in the direction of
the bath house.
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.
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
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.
is…?” Murdoch asked between puffs.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?”
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…”
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?”
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
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.
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
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.
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?”
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’…”
to help himself, Murdoch laughed. He
handed the coin back. “So when
do you plan on returning it?” he asked.
blond’s pale eyes danced with a familiar fire.
“Not until I’ve gotten my due,” he answered.
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.
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
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
was smiling when he reached the porch. “Hey,
Scott,” he greeted.
Johnny,” Scott smiled.
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.
returned the greeting, resisting the urge to reach out and put his son’s too
long hair right. “Hey, my
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…”
Scott and I,” Murdoch corrected. “And
it won’t be two weeks until tomorrow,” he added.
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.
happen again,” he promised solemnly, raising his right hand.
caught part, anyway.
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.
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
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.
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
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
how about it, Murdoch?” Johnny grinned, his eyes bright with anticipation.
“Gonna cut the wolf loose?”
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.
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.
was chuckling. “Sit,” he
ordered, pointing at the bench.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
Scott.” Johnny looked up.
“It was pretty funny…”
was not funny!”
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
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
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…”
even?” Scott finished. When he
saw his brother was about to protest, he shook his head.
“Just do it, and move on,” he suggested.
Suspicious, Johnny eyed his sibling.
He knew in his gut there was
definitely an 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.
tellin’ me I got to apologize?”
apologize, Johnny.” Scott
reached out, laying his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
the hell is that supposed to mean?” the younger man snorted.
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.
saw the beginnings of a smile; Scott’s eyes betraying him.
“Think you’re pretty fuckin’ smart, don’tcha?”
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
The younger man snickered. “Bugs the Hell outta ya, don’t it? Me lockin’ my bedroom door?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
turned his head slightly to gaze at his brother, smiling as the younger man
struggled with the answer.
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
mused. He remained silent.
planning on being late?” Murdoch asked.
He came forward in his chair, the frown just as severe as he intended.
realized his mistake. “Uh…
Nope,” he watched as his father’s scowl deepened, “No, sir,” he tried
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
the brunet had a chance to answer, he felt his brother’s fingers on his arm.
“Hey!” he snorted.
ignored his sibling, still holding on to the younger man’s arm.
“Is there anything we can bring you back from town, sir?
shook his head at his elder son’s smoothness.
“No, thank you,” he replied. With
that, he waved his sons off.
stood next to Scott on the boardwalk. He
gave the blond a nudge with his elbow. “Think
he’s gonna do it?” he asked.
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.
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?”
that many times,” Scott admitted ruefully.
He faced the lawman, an embarrassed grin forming.
“Once,” he said.
eyes narrowed and he reached up, shoving his hat well back on his head.
“And when was that?” he asked doubtfully.
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.”
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!”
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.
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’.”
Scott asked; his head canted.
shop’s full,” the younger man announced.
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.
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,
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
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,
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’.”
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…”
opened the door to the café; standing back to allow the brothers to pass.
“You also been curtailin’ his late night tree climbin’?” he
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.
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.”
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.
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...?”
what?” Val inquired.
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.
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
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.
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.
wasn’t buying it.
She also knew the youngest Lancer was broke.
Scott reached out, tapping his younger brother on the shoulder.
‘way.” The brunet responded without looking up.
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.
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.
turned to stare up at his brother. “What
the Hell just happened?” he asked.
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
the Stetson, Johnny took a quick look around the room.
“Don’t see nobody else in any big hurry to leave,” he griped.
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?”
pulled up short. “He didn’t
say nothin’ about bringin’ back any change.”
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
brunet heaved a sigh. “Nope.”
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
he reminded himself. Thank
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.
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.
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
you sorry?” Murdoch said, nodding at the china.
“It would have given you a good reason to buy something new.”
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
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.
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…”
Knowing where the conversation was going, Murdoch called out to his
sons. “Teresa’s brought a
fresh pot of coffee. Come join
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
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.
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.
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?”
Johnny,” she said sweetly, “you forgot to tell Murdoch and I what you gave
Miranda that she said was the best…”
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
smirked up at him. “It’s
Saturday night, Johnny! And I’m
not the least bit tired!”
well, I’m plumb tuckered out,” the younger man declared.
With that, he wiggled free of her grasp and turned back towards the
brunet had just stepped up onto the tiled threshold leading to the stairwell.
Sighing, he turned around. “Yeah,
forgot to take off your hat,” the older man answered.
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.”
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.
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.
Scot nodded. And then, expectant,
held out his hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I owe you one, big brother,” Johnny grinned.
They were in the hallway standing at the door to the younger man’s
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.”
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?”
blond’s smile was totally guileless. “That’s
what be brother’s do,” he stated matter-of-factly; “take care of baby
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.
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.
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.”
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.
could just leave you hangin’” the youth countered.
just curious, Johnny.”
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.”
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’.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
blond’s chin dropped against his chest and he was shaking his head.
“How many?” he asked, not really wanting to know.
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,”
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.
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.”
the blond demanded. Just the one
word, knowing his brother would understand exactly what he was asking.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
The refusal came with the younger man’s usual brusqueness.
Then, his tone changing, “You gonna tell?”
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?
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.”
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?”
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?”
Scott answered, fighting the smile. “You
get caught this time, brother; you can consider me monkey number four.”
brunet stretched, his entire body tensing, then relaxing; his left hand
covering his mouth as he stifled a yawn. “No
problema,” he muttered.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
screamed his name again. That was
all it took to set Murdoch to hollering. “JOHN!!”
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,”
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.
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.
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.
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.
when do you think I’ll be able to ride her?” the girl asked, her tone
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.
smiled; the grin quickly turning into a frown.
“Cip told Murdoch she threw you twice yesterday.”
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.
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…”
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.
horse,” Johnny surmised. “T’resa,
on the other hand…”
Again, the single word from the head of the table; a bit louder this
smiled. “Just funnin’, Murdoch.”
He turned the grin on his sister. “She’s
feisty,” he said. “You,
blushed. “I just like her,
Johnny. I think she’s
special.” Her mood had changed
again, her smile was almost sunny. “Like
That one did him in.
“There’s only one Barranca,” he murmured.
young woman was toying with her eggs; pushing little bits of toast into the
yellow yolks. “Have you given
her a name yet?”
had to bite his lip. Scott,
fearing his brother would answer her, almost choked on his coffee.
“Not yet,” the brunet lied.
picked up the newspaper. Breakfast
was the only meal where he allowed any distraction at the table.
“Wheat prices are up,” he said.
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.
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.
smiled at the thought.
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.
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.
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.
one, Murdoch, Scott and Johnny rose up from the table.
Pandemonium reigned as Teresa joined them and they bolted for the
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!”
she said, pointing a shaky finger at her work table.
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.
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
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.
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.
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...
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...
now, Jelly!” the big Scot bellowed; intent on catching his youngest.
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
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?”
sighed. “Squirrels,” she said;
just the one word.
segundo patted her arm.
“Juanito?” he asked.
nailed him with a look that could have curdled fresh goat’s milk.
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.
stood at the doorway to her kitchen, her arms folded; the broom resting
securely beneath her right elbow. She
watched as the Patrón’s
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.
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!”
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
just went upstairs,” the blond answered.
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…”
was shaking his head. “You know,
brother,” he muttered, “one of these days we’re going to have a very
long talk about…
The voice thundered down from above.
It was like being summoned by God.
A very pissed off God.
squirrels aren’t here, Maria,” Scott said.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
hated that question. It hadn’t
sounded half bad when Scott had asked it; but now…
“Six,” he answered.
gave a curt nod of his head. “Six,”
he echoed. It seemed like a fair
number. “Six squirrels.
weeks!?” Johnny kicked at a
wadded up white sock. “Jesus
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.
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.
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.
it, Johnny,” Teresa shouted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
five and six proved more elusive. Where
the others had seem to run in pairs, the last hold outs preferred to run amok
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
happened here?” The tall Scot demanded.
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.
Murdoch asked. “You mean we
could have been luring these things out and catching them with nuts?”
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.
plan,” the older man echoed. “What
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
Walt in to get Sam,” Murdoch breathed, shaking his head in disbelief.
How the hell was he going to
explain this to Sam?
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?”
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.
blond took another sip of whiskey. “I
was just wondering how you plan on documenting Johnny’s latest
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.”
held up his glass, too; and Scott did the honors for both men.
“Did Jelly take care of the squirrels?” he asked.
head dipped slightly. “Yes,
sir,” he answered. “He said
they are going to make a delightful stew.”
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
all the fuckin’ good it did him. He
was still number one on the Old Man’s shit list.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
woodshed,” Scott answered. “Your
own personal woodshed.”