Disclaimer: A follow up to But I’ll Call the Tune, and WHN-High Riders, with references to The Gringo, the story about how Val and Johnny first met; and part of a Lancer quintet. In this story, Johnny learns what it means to have a family that not only cares, but is determined to prove it; no matter what. Something righteous since Fox won’t take care of him… PHHHHHHHHHHHT
Oh, the separations between sections were stolen from SF
In the space of a very short few months, Johnny Madrid’s life had changed beyond any of the far-reaching plots in the works of fiction Scott had read to him during his restless convalescence. His recovery had been a down and up thing: the bullet wound during the fire fight with Pardee, the signing of the partnership papers, a toss into the corral fence by a wall-eyed mustang he’d known from the first look was plumb loco (and he’d been told not to ride), Val’s appointment as Sheriff in Green River, and then the from-out-of-nowhere cold that developed almost over night into full blown pneumonia… Yep. The old Count of Monte Cristo’s life had been a buggy ride compared to Johnny Madrid’s recent rodeo.
The young man sighed. He’d been poked, prodded and pestered to death by Sam Jenkins this very morning; almost to the point he was thinking seriously of plugging the old coot. And then the doctor announced to everyone, although somewhat tentatively -- yeah, they had all been there -- he was once again fit to ride.
He was down the stairs and in the barn saddling Barranca before Sam even finished talking! Took off like a bat out of Hell, running the big palomino full out, retracing in reverse the same path he had taken when Pardee was chasing him. Hurt like all Holy Jesus when they took the first fence, but the second jump was easier. The third one -- over a downed tree in the high meadow -- was iffy; but Barranca had stumbled only a bit before he was able to shift his weight and help the animal regain its lead. After that, everything was a blur: the sod beneath him, even the clouds looming dark above the ridge where he had told Pardee to get off his land.
His land. He pulled the palomino up, fighting the animal when the horse tried to take the bit. Barranca still wanted to run, but he pulled the stallion in a series of tight right turns; patting its neck until the animal was willing to stand at rest. And then he sat there, looking out over his land (well, a third of it anyway; as Boston liked to remind him), the vast expanse of hills and valleys; watching as the blue water in the stock pond and the larger lake beyond the house turned the same color as the sky. Grey; gunmetal grey as the large thunderheads moved across the western horizon.
He knew it was going to rain; could see the sheets of water that were moving in an uneven line across the mountains, until the late spring snow that capped the peaks -- like the tall pines -- disappeared and God drew Heaven’s drapes across the horizon. Lifting his head, he felt the brief warmth of the disappearing sun on his face, and then the first gentle drops as the wind carried the rain closer.
There was a lightening strike, just ahead of him on the hillside, and he watched in awe as a large tree was split completely in half where the huge limbs forked into a myriad of branches. Beneath him, Barranca danced, and he quickly dismounted, feeling the electricity penetrating the soles of his boots as another lightening bolt struck the tree at ground level and the earth beneath him shook.
Wild-eyed, Barranca tried to bolt, the dissipating electricity that coursed through the ground intensified by the animal’s iron shoes and causing small sparks; the palomino’s feet haloed by the purple-blue, iridescent glow of St. Elmo’s Fire. Johnny had seen the phenomenon before; during a storm-driven cattle stampede, just as he had heard the eerie buzz that filled the air. He felt a sharp twinge in his shoulder as Barranca tried to pull free a second time; a wrenching of the still tender skin below his right shoulder blade. And then the great curtain of rain swept around him, the sudden torrent turning the drops of rain into stinging daggers against his skin.
Grabbing the rain-slicked saddle horn, he executed a perfect ‘pony-express’ running mount; swinging himself up into the saddle and hunkering low against the palomino’s neck as he gave the animal its head; aware again of the burning pain at his shoulder. Barranca needed no urging; the big horse instinctively headed for home and the dry warmth of the barn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch, wearing the black pants and shirt that gave him the look of a country parson, watched from the shelter of the front portico, his heart in his throat as he saw his son coming beneath the arch at a full run. He sucked in a lungful of cold air, aware that Scott, who was standing to his left, had done the same; both men silent as they observed horse and rider gallop into the yard. They watched silently as Johnny rode directly into the barn.
Another ragged wave of driving rain washed across the yard, giant puddles forming and turning a murky yellow as the spring storm continued to pour. A sudden shift in the wind brought the cold mountain air funneling through the courtyard; a loud clatter coming as marble-sized hail began to fall against the tiled roof. The pellets of dirty grey ice plopped loudly against the dampened earth at an angle, plowing ruts into the yellow clay that exposed the centuries-old underbelly of glacial rock. Just as quickly as the icy maelstrom had begun, it ceased; and there was nothing now but the still-falling rain.
It seemed like they waited forever, and their breathing had still not returned to normal. And then they saw it; the bright splash of red coming out of the barn door as Johnny made a bee-line for the house.
Johnny slipped. He felt his boots lose traction against the rain-slicked mud, instinctively reaching back with both hands to catch himself. The quick maneuver failed; his arms going dart-like away from his body as he landed flat on his back in the muck. Rain pelted his exposed face, and he inhaled at the stabbing sensation against his cheeks; an even greater pain coming at his back; this one new and even more intense than the annoyingly familiar pinching of healing flesh. Fighting the pain, he flipped over onto his knees, gingerly lifting himself to his feet and then moving forward. Aware he was being watched by his father and brother, he steeled himself; displaying his usual bravado as he continued his trek.
Swearing softly, Scott stood back, Murdoch doing the same as Johnny zigzagged across the yard. The blond Lancer was shaking his head, watching as his younger brother made a game of intentionally hop-scotching from one puddle to another. Finally, after a two-footed hop into a puddle directly in front of the doorway, Johnny made the jump onto the rain-slicked patio; only to lose his balance on the wet tile.
Instinctively, Scott reached out and grabbed his sibling’s right arm; Murdoch firmly gripping the left. Both men pulled the youth to his feet, neither willing to let go.
“What were you thinking, boy?” Murdoch growled.
“About how good some hot coffee’s goin’ to taste!” Johnny grinned. He struggled to free himself of his father and brother’s tight grip. “I ain’t some fuckin’ wishbone, ya know!”
Scott wasn’t much happier than his father. “It didn’t occur to you to wait in the barn until the rain stopped?” Beyond them in the yard, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle.
Hiding a smile, Johnny dipped his head. A flood of water dumped from the brim of his soaked Stetson; right on top of Scott’s shiny boots. “Heard somewhere once it rained forty days and forty nights,” he smirked. “Didn’t wanna chance it happenin’ again.” He shivered a bit and felt his father’s grip tighten.
Murdoch’s hand dropped to his side. He was shaking his head. “Get in the house,” he ordered. He turned to Scott, nodding towards the door. “Fetch your brother a blanket.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “I ain’t that wet!”
Snorting, Scott led the way to the door. “I have a feeling Teresa and Maria aren’t going to agree with your assessment, little brother.”
All three stepped across the threshold; Scott in the lead, Johnny wedged in between his elder brother and his father. They stopped short in the hallway, eyeing the puddle of water that was already beginning to accumulate on the dark tile. Scott headed into the Great Room; returning directly with a blanket he had grabbed from the back of the couch.
Johnny stamped his feet, adding a pile of barn dirt and mud to the small lake. Hat hanging across his back, he toed out of his boots and immediately headed toward the door leading to the kitchen, a trail of wet footprints in his wake. Murdoch pulled him up short. Taking the blanket from Scott, he wrapped it around his younger son’s shoulders. “Upstairs,” he instructed; giving the youth a nudge in the proper direction.
Wrapping the blanket around himself, Johnny shook his head, and headed for the kitchen. “Coffee.”
The nudge changed to a sudden tug as Murdoch wrapped his hand around his son’s upper arm. Pulling the younger man to him, he strode purposely toward the stairway.
Johnny found himself being bodily dragged along, and he tried to pull up only to be betrayed by his now wet socks. When he felt his big toe smack into the oak riser of the bottom step, he swore. “Goddammit!”
Murdoch ignored the outburst, choosing instead to let go of his son’s arm just long enough to grasp the younger man by the scruff of his neck. He gave the boy another tug, almost lifting him off his feet; resolutely climbing the stairs, his son in tow.
It was surprising just how fast the Old Man could move. He marched his son up the stairs to the second floor; not one mote of regret in him as he reached out to open the young man’s bedroom door. Johnny found himself suddenly standing in his own room; still wondering how the hell he had gotten there.
Murdoch was rummaging around in Johnny’s dresser; finally finding what he was looking for. He turned around, facing his son; one hand uplifted.
Johnny eyed his father “What’s that?”
“Exactly what it looks like, John; a nightshirt,” he answered, thrusting the flannel garment at his son. “I want you out of those wet clothes; all of those wet clothes.” He jabbed a long finger in the direction of his son’s once-white socks. “Now.”
“I told you,” the younger man argued, removing his hat and shaking his head like a freshly scrubbed puppy that had just escaped its keeper, “I ain’t all that wet!” Mother Nature made a liar out of him as water flew in every direction from the too long hair; damp curls forming at his ears and his forehead. He tossed the wet hat on his bed.
“Yes, you are.” Murdoch snapped. “Your pants are soaked, which means that your underwear is also wet; and so is your shirt. You’re also dripping mud all over Maria’s clean floor.” That, in and of itself, carried dire consequences; enough that the older man was not looking forward to explaining the mess to the woman. “Get undressed.”
Johnny’s mouth quirked into a small pout, his lower lip jutting out. He was wet; he was also cold, but there was no way he was going to do what the Old Man said. And he sure in Hell wasn’t going to turn around. Already, he could feel the blood on his back just below his right shoulder blade cooling and beginning to congeal. “No.” Who the Hell does he think he is? He tried to suppress a shiver and failed.
Murdoch did a better job of hiding a grim smile. “Take off your clothes.”
“Who’s gonna make me?” the younger man challenged.
“If necessary, I will,” the older man answered.
Johnny laughed. “You and what army?” It was one of his favorite questions; usually tossed at the older (and they were always older) rivals who were stupid enough to think he was nothing but a green kid.
Scott chose that particular moment to come through the door. He was carrying a tray; which he promptly put down on the dresser. “This one, if that’s what it takes.” The blond’s expression matched his father’s; the grey eyes narrowing. If he was feeling any guilt over the odds of two to one, it didn’t show. It wasn’t that long since his recently discovered brother had been desperately ill, and he wasn’t about to allow a relapse.
Beneath the blanket, Johnny’s right hand moved to his right hip. It hit him then. He had -- once again -- left his pistol under his pillow in his hurry to get out of the house; out of this room.
Murdoch saw the move. This time he made no effort to hide the smile. “I’ve undressed your brother before, Scott,” he announced, his tone amicable.
Johnny wasn’t about to let go. “Yeah. When I was passed out cold,” he breathed. “You sure you want to try it while I’m awake and kickin’, Old Man? You sure you wanna give it a try now?”
The older man was still smiling, and he had pulled himself fully erect; all six feet five of him seeming to fill the room. “Are you sure you want me to try?” He held up the nightshirt again. “Your choice, son.” His voice lowered. “You have until I count to three. One…two…” he began to advance on the younger man.
Amused at what he was seeing -- what he was sure was about to transpire -- Scott leaned back against the open door and pushed it shut. He stood, arms folded, watching.
Johnny was backing up. He felt like a piece of meat being sized up for lunch; a grizzly’s lunch. In his stockinged feet, he was even that much shorter than the older man; a good head shorter. And about sixty pounds lighter.
More or less…
Johnny swallowed; hard, and raised his right hand, Indian fashion; the universal sign of parley. His ass end was pressed against the nightstand beside his bed, and he had the funny feeling it was a good thing. “Toss me some dry pants, Boston…”
Scott just smiled and stayed right where he was. There was a hint of desperation in his brother’s voice that bordered on panic; a little boy’s dread at being caught with his fingers in a freshly-baked pie and a face full of cherry.
Murdoch was standing so close to his younger son, he could feel the boy’s breath hot against his chest. Johnny was still shaking his head. “Nightshirt,” the older man intoned. This was, he knew, a contest of will he could not afford to lose. “And take off those socks!”
Johnny was still looking to make a deal. He nodded toward the window; toward the pink rays of a setting sun. It had stopped raining. Not that it mattered. He was soaked through to the skin, his teeth were starting to chatter, and he was fucking cold. Still, he had to try. “The sun ain’t even down! Got a whole night ahead of me. Just let me get a dry shirt and some dry pants…”
“No.” Murdoch gestured with the nightshirt a final time.
“Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ!” Johnny shrugged off the blanket. His wet calzoneras were next; along with his socks. When he saw it wasn’t enough, he tugged at his shirt, not bothering with the buttons as he pulled it over his head, purposefully crumpling it up and tossed it to the floor.
“Your underwear,” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. He shot a dark look at his elder brother; the best Madrid glare he could summon under the circumstances and it wasn’t working. He grabbed the hated nightshirt; pulled it over his head and stepped out of his long johns. “Satisfied?!”
“I will be when you get yourself in this bed,” Murdoch answered. Driving home the point, he pulled back the quilt and thumped the mattress with the flat of his hand. Just as quickly, the same hand snaked beneath the pillow to reappear with Johnny’s rig.
Smart move, Old Man, the younger man fumed. Still, he hesitated; turning only slightly as he debated his next move.
There was a sudden, loud smack as Murdoch’s reached around the youth and his left palm connected solidly with his recalcitrant son’s poorly protected rear end. “Now, John.”
He wasn’t sure why he obeyed; other than it seemed like a good idea to get his ass end as far away from his Old Man’s hand as he could. Not that it did any good! The next thing he knew, Murdoch was tucking him in and then toweling his hair dry; and -- just for good measure -- the Old Man was pressing the back of his hand against his forehead to see if he had a fever!
Johnny watched as his father finally strode out of the room. Scott had opened the door for the Old Man, but made no move himself to leave. He watched as his elder brother picked up the tray from the dresser and made his way over to the bed. “What’s that?” he asked, nodding at the covered tray.
Scott moved the clutter from the night stand and put the tray down. “Maria’s tea,” he answered, not even having the good grace to hide the snicker. He pulled the cloth away, nodding at the pot; and then filled the single mug. “Here.”
“Ain’t happenin’,” the younger man snorted.
Scott shrugged, and then reached into his pocket. He pulled out a clean white handkerchief and handed it to his brother. “Your nose is running,” he observed.
“Fuck you.” He sniffled; tempted to use the sleeve of his nightshirt. Giving up, he grabbed the handkerchief, and blew. Twice. Grinning, he shoved the snot-filled cloth at his brother.
“No, thank you,” the blond said, raising his right hand in refusal. “You can keep it. I have more,” he said solemnly.
Johnny wadded up the bit of cloth and tossed it onto the floor. “Yeah, and you know what you can do with them, Boston.”
Undeterred, Scott grabbed his brother’s hand and pressed the mug against his palm. “Maria said -- and I quote: ‘tell him to drink it all; and watch him. He can be very sneaky.’” He smiled at the memory. “She also said if you don’t drink it, she’s going to beat you with her spoon.” He leaned forward a bit, as if telling a secret. “I won’t even bother to tell you what Teresa threatened. And Cip…”
The brunet shifted in the bed. He stared into the cup. Maria’s tea was notorious for three things: its bad taste, its foul aroma, and its sometimes (too many times) explosive purgative and diuretic qualities. It was as if the woman believed the only cure for everything from the common cold to a bullet hole was a prolonged stay in the outhouse. Hell, the woman used it to make poultices and -- he was pretty damned sure -- kill mice and other vermin. “You’re enjoyin’ this, ain’t you?”
Scott sat down in the chair next to the bed. “No.” He was fighting the smile, almost sorry for the lie. And then, repenting, “yes.”
Johnny sat up and swung his legs off the bed. He slammed the cup down on the night stand and started to stand up.
“Murdoch!” Just the single word; but said loud enough to wake the dead. Scott leaned back in the chair and folded his arms just below his chest. There was the sound of heavy footsteps in the hallway. Immediately, Johnny sat back down, hard; and pulled the blankets up around his chest.
The door opened and Murdoch stuck his head inside. “Is there a problem?” he asked.
Scott canted his head. “I’m not sure, sir.” He smiled across at his brother; marveling at the sudden color in the younger man’s cheeks. “Is there a problem, little brother?” he asked innocently.
“Tea’s cold,” Johnny lied. In his head, he was planning a hundred and one ways to kill his brother.
Murdoch stepped into the room. In three long strides he was beside the bed; his fingertip testing the contents of the cup. He frowned. “It’s fine,” he announced, handing the mug to his son. “Drink.”
Johnny grimaced; shot another baleful look at his brother, and -- spiteful -- downed the evil tasting brew in a single swallow. His stomach growled in protest and then immediately rebelled with a vengeance. “Gonna be sick,” he groaned.
Scott quickly picked up the wash basin from the dresser and shoved it into his brother’s hands. He shook his head. “You need a keeper, brother.”
Murdoch was concentrating on mopping his son’s face. “I’ve sent Cipriano to see if he can catch up with Sam,” he announced.
Jesus! Johnny gritted his teeth; his stomach still churning. “I don’t need the Doc,” he declared. He looked up to see Teresa storming into the room. “Fuck!” he whispered.
Teresa was frowning; more at the dirt on the floor than the filth coming from her brother’s mouth. She had observed he only swore when he had been caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing; or when he wanted to get under Murdoch’s skin. “Well, I guess that explains who left all the water and mud in the front hallway,” she bristled, pointing at the pile of wet clothes beside the bed. “Maria’s going to have your head when she sees this.” Then, seeing the basin in her brother’s lap; her face softened. “Are you sick?” she asked.
Johnny looked at the girl as if she was a lunatic. “No,” he snarled. “Just decided I’d check out what I had for lunch…” He held up the porcelain bowl for her inspection.
Scott took the basin and covered it with the cloth from the tray; passing it off to the young woman. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Teresa. He’s just being his usual charming self.”
“Juanito!” The disembodied voice called from the hallway; preceding the housekeeper as she bustled through the doorway. She turned to face Scott. “Did he drink the tea?”
The blond hid his smile behind a not-so-subtle brushing of his upper lip. “Yes, ma’am. In one mighty swallow,” he answered. He nodded toward the basin Teresa was holding.
Maria’s hand shot out, and she lifted a corner of the cloth. Moving swiftly across the room, she reached out to touch the younger man’s forehead with her palm; her brow furrowing. “Aha! You have a fever!” It sounded like an accusation. Her mood did not improve when she spied the pile of muddy clothing. “I will make more tea; and this time there will be no azúcar (sugar)!”
Johnny’s face was a fascinating shade of red. The words came through clenched teeth. “I…ain’t…got…no…fu…”
“John.” Murdoch’s voice was deceptively soft, but the warning was clear.
The younger man was counting; the fingers of his right hand thumping one, two, three, four against the quilt, which was stretched taut against his thigh. He searched the room with his eyes; wondering where the hell his pistol was. A nickel a bullet, he mused. For twenty fuckin’ cents, he could get rid of ‘em all. Cheaper than that, if he could get Teresa to stand in front of Maria.
But he was going to start with Scott. Mentally, he upped the ante. Gonna spend a dime on that smart ass! I’ll shoot that fuckin’ grin right off his face, and then plug him right between his eyes!!
Scott was not only still alive; he was sitting in the chair next to the bed when Sam Jenkins arrived. He stood up when the physician came into the room; extending his hand in greeting, his tone apologetic. “Sam.”
The old man was frowning. “Cipriano caught up with me just as I got on the road leading back to town. So much for my quiet evening with a good book and a snifter of fine brandy.” He took off his eyeglasses, wiping off the last remnants of the spots left by the blowing rain that had managed to invade the confines of his closed buggy. “I’m going to have Murdoch put me on a retainer,” he groused. “Or maybe I’ll just have him build a hospital here at Lancer.” He sighed. “What’s he done now?” He put his bag down on the bed, digging into the dark interior and withdrawing his stethoscope.
Johnny gathered the blankets up around his chest; his fingers knotted around the brightly colored fabric. “Nothin’!” he protested. And then, in self defense, “you told me I could ride!”
Sam slapped his fingers. “Not in the rain,” he scolded. “And not like some damned fool.” He had barely gotten into his buggy to leave when Johnny had passed him at a full run. Resolutely, he pulled the blankets away and then unbuttoned the younger man’s nightshirt, exposing the boy’s naked chest. He bent forward slightly, inclining his head as he concentrated listening to the youth’s heartbeat.
The younger Lancer was protesting loudly. “Jesus, old man, your hands are colder than a two dollar whore’s!” The next words came in a flood of raw border Mexican; a colorful variety of curses most foul.
The physician’s face colored briefly, and a deep frown crossed his countenance. “¡Hablo español, chico!” (I speak Spanish, boy!), the man announced. Sam Jenkins late wife had been the daughter of a Don; a well-bred woman of grace and culture he had courted soon after his arrival in California as a member of Frémont’s first expedition to what would become, briefly, the Bear Republic.
It was Johnny’s turn to blush. He cast an apologetic look at the older man, and then swung his gaze to his elder brother who didn’t even have the good grace to not laugh.
In the hallway, Scott could hear his father shooing Maria and Teresa ahead of him as he strode down the hallway. The two women came through the door first, only to be greeted by yet another series of muttered curses; which quickly diminished as Murdoch crossed the threshold.
Patience -- when it came to his youngest son -- was not Murdoch’s greatest virtue; a fact made even more evident by his sudden one-word question for Sam. “Well?”
Sam was still standing beside Johnny’s bed. His stethoscope was now looped around his neck. “I see he still doesn’t have the good sense to come in out of the rain,” he observed drolly. “Lift up your shirt so I can listen to your lungs, John,” he ordered. If he was ashamed of the ruse it didn’t show. His real concern was the bright smear of fresh blood he had observed on the youth’s pillow slip and nightshirt when Johnny had sat up.
The sapphire eyes shifted from the doctor’s somber face to the faces of the people who were still crowded into his room. Like he was about to shuck his night shirt with T’resa and Maria standin’ there gawking like two old maids lookin’ for a quick peek at the family jewels!! “Nope,” he snorted.
Murdoch crossed the room to the foot of the bed; his hands closing around the footboard. “You’ll do as Sam tells you, boy!”
This time, Scott couldn’t stop the laughter; at least not as quickly as he would have liked. “My apologies, sir,” he murmured, turning aside; only to be reduced to a series of snickers as he saw the look on Teresa and Maria’s faces. It was clear from their expressions that neither woman had any intention of leaving the room until they knew exactly the source of Sam Jenkins’ concern; or if Johnny was truly all right.
Johnny glared up at his father. Put the nightshirt on, take the nightshirt off. The Old Man was fuckin’ crazy! “You just made me put this damned thing on!” he growled. “I ain’t takin’ it off!!”
Sam was having none of it. He reached out, tugging at Johnny’s right ear to get his attention. “Just lean forward and I’ll pull up your shirt tail,” he intoned, losing patience as his concern increased.
Again, Johnny’s gaze was directed at the crowd. “Ain’t happenin’,” he pouted.
Murdoch was about to chastise his youngest when it finally dawned on him what was wrong. Well, at least some of what was wrong. “Maria, if you and Teresa would please see to some coffee and something warm for Sam to eat,” he prompted.
Johnny recognized an opportunity when he saw one. “Yeah,” he nodded. “And take,” he made a shooing motion with his hand, “Boston with you.” He shot a quick look at his brother and actually smiled. Well, smirked. “He can give you a hand.”
“Ain’t happenin’,” Scott said. He did, however, usher the women out of the room.
Sam gave Johnny’s shoulder a pat; sharp enough to gain the youth’s full attention. “Lean forward,” he ordered.
Giving up, the younger man complied. Try as he could, he was unable to suppress the soft grunt when the physician’s fingers probed at his shoulder. “Thought you was gonna just listen to my lungs,” he groused; hoping against hope Sam wouldn’t make a fuss, wouldn’t do anything to draw Murdoch’s attention to the fresh wound in his back.
“In a minute,” Sam ground out, his tone much the same as the younger man’s. True to his word, he pressed the stethoscope against Johnny’s back. “Cough,” he ordered. “Again.” He was shaking his head when he finished. As a toddler, the youngest Lancer son had been susceptible to chest colds; even a slight case of the sniffles cause for major concern. It was a wonder, the physician thought, that Johnny had survived his childhood. “His lungs are beginning to fill,” he sighed, lifting his hand to stop Murdoch’s question before it could be asked; not bothering to hide his exasperation or his concern. “There’s also this…”
Surrendering to the inevitable, Johnny’s shoulders slumped and he leaned even farther forward to bury his head against his knees as Murdoch moved in closer. He could feel his father’s breath warm across his the back of his neck. “It’s nothin’,” he mumbled, knowing it was a lie.
Murdoch’s touch was surprisingly gentle as he pressed his fore and middle fingers against the bruise that was forming on Johnny’s back. At the purple center there was a jagged gash; at its deepest point wide enough that he could have laid the side of his little finger in the cut with room to spare. The blood had begun to clot; but just barely, and as Johnny leaned forward, the flow resumed. “He fell when he was coming in from the barn,” he muttered. “Hard; flat on his back.” He shook his head. “I should have seen this,” he breathed; as if it was his fault his son had been re-injured. Silently, he began to wonder if Johnny’s fondness for red shirts didn’t stem from the knowledge the color did a good job of hiding his injuries.
Sam was rummaging in his satchel for the carbolic acid. “He’s reopened the incision below the bullet wound as well.” His next words were directed to his patient. “Tell me what happened when you fell,” he ordered.
Without looking up, Johnny shrugged. “Boots went out from under me; couldn’t catch myself. Felt somethin’ poke me in the back.”
Scott had returned to the room; his gaze sweeping the two older men and not liking what he what he was seeing. “What’s going on?” The concern was evident in his pale eyes.
“Your brother has managed to reopen the back wound,” Sam answered. “He’s also sustained some additional damage.”
“The fall,” Scott breathed. “Is it serious?” He approached his brother’s bedside, grimacing as he saw not only the bruise, but a renewed flow of bright red when Johnny lifted his hands to knot them behind his neck in an attempt to cover his ears and bury himself even further into the blanket that covered his knees.
The blond’s question was answered when he saw the physician take the small hinged black case from his bag that contained the doctor’s supply of needles. Why, he wondered, could his brother be so reckless and so willing to continually put his body in jeopardy after not only a life-threatening bullet wound, but the almost lethal case of pneumonia that had followed? He reached out, tapping his brother’s shoulder. “Why didn’t you say something?” he asked; clearly annoyed.
Another noncommittal shrug. Johnny’s head remained buried in the blanket, but Scott could see his brother’s jaws tensing as Sam began cleaning the wound. “I was gonna take care of it,” the brunet muttered through the blankets and his clenched teeth.
“Of course you were,” Scott snapped.
Murdoch was beyond angry. He had gone to that place reserved exclusively for fathers; where concern ran a close second to the need to shake his son senseless for his foolishness. Jaws clenched, he shook his head and backed away to give Sam more room. “Damn it, boy,” he swore softly.
Sam was dabbing at the bottom of the now reopened incision just below the young man’s right shoulder blade; lifting the gauze away for a closer look, and frowning. What he saw beneath the pad was more serious than he had first suspected. The skin where a thin scar had just begun to form had pulled apart, the tear now a ragged open slash that was oozing fresh blood. The newer cut, jagged and of varying depths was not quite a half-inch below the older wound; and it was not only deep, but filthy. It wouldn’t take much, the physician knew, for the skin to split into one gaping, five-inch long wound. Already, the flesh was hot to the touch.
Murdoch saw the physician’s frown. “What do you need, Sam,” he asked softly.
The physician’s eyes narrowed. “Hot water; a good supply of bandages.” He pinched the skin together, debating his options. “Scott,” he called softly, motioning for the younger man to join him beside the bed. Nodding towards his medical kit, he made a gesture with his right hand; as if he were holding a syringe and pushing the plunger. This time when he tended the boy’s wound and stitched it closed, he was going to do so at his leisure.
Murdoch didn’t miss the pantomime that was occurring behind his younger son’s back and kept a straight face. “You’ll need to put him on his stomach,” he suggested in a lame attempt to distract his restless son.
Sam nodded. “Flat on his stomach,” he intoned.
“How are we going to deal with the nightshirt?” Scott asked. He had retrieved the syringe from Sam’s kit and was filling it.
Johnny was still leaning forward; his arms wrapped tightly around his knees as he drew them up even more tightly against his chest, instinctively making himself a smaller target. There was a breeze blowing across his backside, and it seemed to be fanning his anger. “I’m right fuckin’ here,” he muttered, tired of everyone talking as if he wasn’t. He raised his head slightly. “Just pull it together and stick a plaster on it, Sam. I got things to do; places to be.”
The physician snorted. “Ease him out of that night shirt,” he directed. “Left arm first.”
“I can’t fuckin’ believe it!” Johnny’s forehead was still resting against his knees, a good indication that he was hiding the pain, his head rocking back and forth. The rocking ceased as he suddenly raised his left hand to rub at the place on the back of his head where his father had just thumped him with a single, bony finger. “What’d you do that for?” he demanded, glaring up at the older man.
“Your mouth,” Murdoch answered, although his intent had been to keep his younger son distracted and unaware of Scott’s presence at his back. He began gently removing his son’s nightshirt, manipulating Johnny’s left arm loose from the sleeve before easing the long shirt over the boy’s head and down his right shoulder, all the time aware Sam was watching him.
Teresa came through the door just as Johnny wriggled free of the annoying piece of flannel. As usual, she hadn’t bothered to knock. He grabbed the nightshirt from his father’s hand, using the cloth to cover his chest as he grappled with his free hand for the blankets. “Jesus Christ, T’resa! I’m fuckin’ naked here…”
Thunk. Murdoch thumped his youngest son’s head a second time. And then he turned his attention to his ward. “Sam’s going to need some soap and hot water and some clean bandages. And Teresa,” he was shaking his head now, “we’ve had this discussion before, about coming into your brothers’ rooms without knocking.” He could see the tears forming in the girl’s eyes, but resolved to be firm. “I don’t want to have this conversation again. Now, please tell Maria what Sam needs and have her bring things up when they’re ready.”
Teresa’s chin was quivering. She blinked back the tears; sniffling a bit. Then, turning away, she fled the room.
“‘Bout time,” Johnny murmured. Although he wouldn’t admit it, he really didn’t like to see the girl cry. He was still staring at the doorway when he felt the pinch on his left arm and the all too familiar prick of a needle. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He managed to turn over on his stomach on his own before the drug rendered him senseless. Murdoch had taken away his pillows, making it all that more uncomfortable. It was even more unsettling when Sam positioned his right arm in a rigid line flush at his side. The feeling was too similar to the day the ruales had put him face down in the dirt with the other peons they had ambushed; hands tied behind his back at his waist. Only one thing was lacking: the sensation of a booted heel grinding into his spine between his shoulder blades.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott watched as his younger brother slept. He felt like a traitor. He knew Johnny hated drugs; hated the way they sucked him into a vast dark hole where he had no control over his body; his dreams. No control over the people who posed a threat to him, to his survival.
What Scott didn’t understand was why Johnny perceived his family and their desire to help him as a threat.
It had been three days since the younger man had lost his footing in the mud in front of the barn. He’d gone down hard; flat on his back, but had rebounded with his usual quickness. Not one word about having hurt himself; playing the now-familiar game he always played: Johnny Madrid I’m fine, I don’t need nothin’, I can take care of myself Lancer.
But things had gone south that first night. Sam had warned them the wound was serious; that it didn’t help Johnny had fallen in a muddy soup comprised of earth and the remnants of animal waste. The doctor had spent considerable time digging not only barnyard debris from the already festering cut, but bits of gravel and shredded fabric from Johnny’s torn shirt. ‘I don’t know what the boy was thinking,’ Sam had groused, ‘not a week out of bed with pneumonia, and out riding in the rain like some ten-year-old playing hooky from school!’.
The blond leaned forward slightly, smiling at the analogy; his hand hovering above his brother’s head. He was still feeling guilty about the morphine. Reason told him the drug had been a necessary evil. Sam’s ministrations had required more time than usual as he repaired the damage to the old wound and cleaned and ministered to the new; the physician exercising a great deal of care in not only excising the proud flesh that had begun to form around the hole from Pardee’s bullet, but also making a considerable effort to keep the thin bridge of flesh between the two holes intact. Carefully, he had meticulously worked the skin into place, stitching the tears closed with the finite skill of a Parisian seamstress; using small, perfectly horizontal sutures reinforced at the bottom and top with a series of small knots. When he was through, there had been absolutely no puckering.
Scott withdrew his hand, scrubbing his eyes with his palms. He had seen his share of surgery during the War; knew the distinct sound of a needle piercing flesh, the peculiar noise of thread being pulled through damaged skin. But this had been different. Those other men had been his acquaintances -- after a time, he had found it wasn’t a good idea to form deep friendships in a unit where every other man died either in battle or succumbed to their wounds -- but Johnny was his brother.
His brother. It still amazed him; the undeniable though mysterious tie that had united them from that very first day. They had entered the Great Room to face their father almost shoulder to shoulder, sharing the joint feeling of awe as Murdoch had pulled himself to his full height to greet them. At six-foot-five, even recovering from his back wound and using a cane, the big Scot was an imposing figure.
The blond prided himself on being an astute observer of human nature; a skill he had learned at his Grandfather’s knee and honed during his time in Libby. He’d instantly known Murdoch was not seeing the pistolero Johnny Madrid that morning, but the toddler Johnny Lancer; who had been stolen from him and spirited away. He’d also seen his father harden his heart toward the younger man in an attempt not to be hurt; the same way Johnny had slipped into the cold facade of Madrid, and for the same reason.
Scott smiled at the memory of their father’s ‘greeting’. (If it could be called that.) The Old Man had certainly not minced words or wasted time. Neither had Johnny. In fact, Johnny had purposely baited their father; first with his sarcastic and off-handed refusal of a drink (When I know the man I’m drinkin’ with, yeah…), the taunt about his age (You got somethin’ to say, Old Man…) and then the outright accusation their father was a liar (that ain’t the way I heard it!). In less than ten minutes into the meeting, Johnny had managed to thoroughly trample on the normal polite niceties usually dispensed by the more genteel members of society, presenting himself as rude, insolent and disrespectful. The room had fairly crackled with emotionally charged electricity, the same way it often did even now when Murdoch and Johnny locked horns.
A faint rustling sound from the bed roused the young man from his musings, and he leaned forward in his chair. “Johnny?” The brunet started to say something, the words dying unspoken as he attempted to moisten his dry upper lip with his tongue. Scott raised a single forefinger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he cautioned. Reaching out, he pulled a damp cloth from the bedside table, gently wiping his brother’s dry lips.
Johnny pressed his lips closed, sucking a bit on the moist cloth before pulling his head away. “You shot me up with fuckin’ morphine,” he rasped; almost spitting the words. His body still felt like lead, but his mind was close to being overwhelmed with a kaleidoscope of resurrected memories; bright pictures of his recently acquired family hovering over him, suffocating him.
Scott dropped the cloth back on to the table. “Sam had a great deal of cleaning up and stitching to do,” he said, making no attempt to hide the censure in his voice. Neither was he going to apologize for what he had done at the doctor’s request. “He needed you to stay still; the morphine accomplished that. The rest…”
More rustling sounds from the bed as Johnny attempted to use his right hand to push himself up. The pain made him stop; but only briefly. He tried again, using his left. Immediately, Scott stood up, placing his right palm firmly against his brother’s left shoulder. “Don’t,” he ordered curtly. He knew he had the advantage, and bore down. “I mean it, Johnny. Sam said you are to stay flat on your stomach; and that’s exactly where you’re going to remain.” He held on, maintaining the contact until after his brother stopped struggling.
Satisfied, Scott sat down. “You might be interested in seeing this,” he said; reaching out to the small table beside his brother’s bed. His fingers closed around a large rock; a chunk of hard, fine-grained dark quartz he had dug out of the earth where Johnny had fallen. He placed the shard on the bed, directly in front of his brother’s face. It was considerably cleaner now than when he had pried it lose from the compacted clay; devoid of the dirt and barnyard waste. “I can see why the Indians chose this material to make arrowheads and knife blades,” he ran a single, slim finger across the exposed edge. “It’s durable; it can be honed to an incredible sharpness.” To make his point he pressed the tip of his forefinger against the ragged edge, raising the digit to display the thin cut and the small bubble of bright red blood. Taking out a handkerchief, he wiped the smear away. “It’s what you fell on, little brother.” He picked the rock up and put it back on the night stand.
Johnny’s eyes were blinking rapidly; long black lashes fluttering moth-like across bright blue eyes. Fever bright, Scott worried. His hand immediately went to his younger brother’s forehead.
Roughly, Johnny swatted his brother’s hand away. His mouth was still dry. “How long I been out?”
Scott debated lying. There was only one thing Johnny hated more than drugs: the loss of time and memory he equated with being dead, and the knowledge he was totally dependent on someone other than himself to make the long climb back from the depths of Hell. “Three days,” he answered. He stood up and went to the door, sticking his head into the hallway. “Murdoch!” Without waiting for a response, he quickly returned to his brother’s bedside.
Again, Johnny began to make an attempt to lever himself up from the bed; only to find himself once more pinioned in place by his elder sibling. “Goddammit, Boston!” he swore. “Get your fuckin’ hands off me!!” As sick as he was, the panic was beginning to set in.
Murdoch Lancer strode through the door just in time to hear his youngest son’s outburst. He shook his head at the cursing, but held his temper. Crossing the room, he went to the opposite side of the bed. “You need to lay still, son,” he said, the words coming with an unusual softness. The last seventy-two hours had been much too reminiscent of the bad time after Johnny had been shot by Pardee.
Scott smiled across at his father; appreciative of the big man’s unexpected calm. Still holding on to Johnny’s shoulder, he watched as Murdoch carefully folded the blankets away from his brother’s back. The smile faded when he saw his father’s concerned frown and its cause: the pus-soaked bandage on Johnny’s back. “I’ll get Sam,” he volunteered.
As soon as Scott’s hand dropped from his shoulder, Johnny tried once more to push himself up off the bed. “I ain’t layin’ around here waitin’ for Sam,” he seethed.
Murdoch settled himself down on the bed; his left hand coming to rest on the nape of Johnny’s neck as he held his son in place. “Sam spent the night here,” he said. “He’s in the guest room next to Scott’s bedroom, getting some well-deserved rest. Now quiet down,” he ordered.
“Three days,” Johnny spat. “Scott said I’ve been out for three days!” He tried to shake off his father’s hand and failed. He closed his eyes briefly, realizing Murdoch’s fingers were now massaging his neck. The Old Man was being cunning in his attempt to find out if he had a fever. “I need to piss,” he muttered. It was a lie. He felt as dry as an old bone. What he really wanted was to be up off his belly, looking at something more than the sheets and the floor.
Sam Jenkins had just come through the door from the hallway, Scott right on his heels. The physician was looking disheveled; his clothing in disarray. He had been so tired the night before he had lain down without bothering to undress, removing only his shoes; his mood not much better than his current state of dress. “Go ahead,” he groused. “I’ll just have Maria change your diaper.” He knew the youth was just playing with them in an attempt to con his father into letting him get up.
Johnny’s left hand darted beneath the covers; the relief evident when he found he was wearing the bottom half of his summer long-johns. The discovery didn’t mellow his response, and he swore; profusely. “Real funny, old man,” he finished.
The doctor laughed; his mood improving. “I thought so.” He nodded in greeting to the elder Lancer. “I need to get in there,” he said.
Murdoch rose up from the bed. He backed into the corner near the window; making room for Sam, but still staying close as he could to his son’s side.
Sam hid a smile with the back of his hand, and then joined his old friend at the bedside. He reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his spectacles. Leaning forward, he inspected the thick padding. “I’ll need that basin, Scott. Is that fresh water?” He gestured toward the small table beside the head of the bed.
Scott picked up the pitcher; removing the cloth Teresa had draped over the vessel. “Teresa brought it in about an hour ago,” he answered. Anticipating what the physician wanted, he filled the large bowl and held it out.
Murdoch had been leaning against the wall. He pulled himself erect, watching intently as Sam -- who had taken some cotton swabbing from his bag -- began to dribble water directly onto Johnny’s bandage. Carefully, the doctor began working the cloth free. When he finished, he held the swath of fabric up for inspection. “I think that drawing salve has done an admirable job of pulling out the infection, Murdoch.” He handed the pad off to Scott for disposal. His next words were for the young man lying on the bed. “I’m going to clean the wound now, Johnny.”
The big Scot watched his son’s shoulders rise as the young man took a deep breath. Unconsciously gritting his teeth, he watched as Sam swabbed the flesh; reaching out to lay a gentle hand on the back of Johnny’s head when he saw the boy flinch. “Sam?”
Jenkins was intent on his job. His long fingers worked deftly as he skillfully cleansed the young man’s back. “It looks fine, Murdoch,” he said; glancing up to smile across at Scott. Gently, he probed the row of sutures. “It’s drained well, the skin is beginning to knit,” he pointed to the lower gash, “and the stitches are holding nicely.” He straightened; stretching a bit, and then raised his glasses until they were resting on his forehead. A tall man, he was now at the age where bending over a bed was becoming a bit of a strain.
“He feels warm,” Murdoch announced; the concern evident in his voice as well in his face.
“He feels like he wants to get out of this fuckin’ bed,” Johnny griped. All the staring, poking and prodding had left him feeling like a side of beef someone was planning on slicing into roasts and steaks.
Sam had washed his hands in the basin, and was toweling them dry. He could see the look of consternation on Murdoch’s face; the frustration. His friend was concerned for his son, but he was also irritated by the young man’s rudeness and constant use of foul language. “I need to apply more salve,” he said, “and a new bandage. Once that’s done, my boy, you’ll be able to get up out of that bed and into a chair; at least long enough to change your bed.” His nose crinkled. “Some fresh linen is in order, I think.”
Murdoch was frowning. “He’s still feverish,” he declared stubbornly.
The physician’s eyebrows rose, his glasses moving up almost into his hairline, which had receded considerably in the past years. “I heard you the first time,” he declared, clearly annoyed, “when you told me he was warm. I’ll leave some powders for him that will work with Maria’s tea to keep the fever at bay.” He reached out, tapping Johnny’s shoulder. “Scott’s going to help you sit up now,” he announced.
Scott moved in to assist his brother, his hand going to Johnny’s mouth when he saw the younger man start to speak. The crankier Johnny got, the more likely he was to fill the air with liberal amounts of swear words in two languages; more colorful than Scott had ever heard during his time in the service. Fouler, too; especially when Murdoch was present. Johnny loved getting their father agitated to the point where Murdoch’s jaws worked and his face turned incredible shades of purple. “Don’t,” he hissed. He kept his hand in place until he was sure Johnny would comply.
It took considerable effort to get Johnny into a sitting position; more time for the youth’s stomach to settle. He was sweating now; the perspiration beading on his forehead. The room was quiet, the silence broken as he took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Jesus,” he muttered; surprised at the sudden fatigue that drained him of the last vestiges of energy he had been able to muster. Still, he waved Scott away as his brother moved to support him. “I’m…”
“…fine,” Scott muttered.
Sam was still standing behind Johnny, already assembling the bandages he would need; arranging them in order on the bed. “Ready?” he asked.
Johnny nodded. “Don’t need no audience,” he murmured. His chin was resting on his chest, and he took another deep breath. “Tell ‘em to get out, Doc!” The feeling he was being crowded was coming back with a vengeance.
The physician was applying an ointment to Johnny’s wound; his touch gentle. “I can’t do that, Johnny,” he said.
Johnny’s head snapped up and he attempted to turn around; immediately regretting the sudden move. “Why the hell not?”
Sam was fashioning a thick pad and he measured it carefully for length against the wound. “Because,” he began, placing the folded cloth across the still tender skin; his tone matter-of-fact, “you are nineteen years old, Johnny, and a minor. That gives your father,” he smiled at Murdoch, “the right to be here.”
The brunet’s face flushed a bright red. “You’re fuckin’ crazy!” he declared. He tried to turn a second time, grimacing as the pain came again. His age in calendar years had been a confusing and fluctuating thing for him as a child; changing as it suited his mother’s needs. He was always her little niño (sometimes, hermano or her poor, orphaned sobrino) those times when she actually resorted to begging; her little hombre when she sought to hire him out to saloon keepers and merchants. And gamblers. He wondered how old he had been when he had first learned to read cards.
“Scott.” Sam called out to the elder Lancer son. “I’m going to need some assistance.” Then, turning his attention back to the younger son, “I delivered you, John; recorded your birth in my journal. It was nineteen years ago this past December.”
Johnny’s shoulders tensed, the corners of his mouth turning down into the all too familiar pout. He was shaking his head. “No fuckin’ way,” he fumed. Suspicious, he shot a hot look at his brother when Scott moved closer to the bed. “You try dopin’ me up again, Scott, I’ll kick your ass!”
The blond raised his hands, displaying his empty palms and meeting his brother’s gaze head on. “What do you need, Sam?” he asked.
Murdoch had been unusually quiet, watching and listening to what was occurring. It had never occurred to him Johnny did not know his true age. One more reason to be angry with Maria. He wondered if his wife had even celebrated Johnny’s birthday once she left the ranch.
His jaws tightened as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. He had come to hate the month of December. There was, of course, always a celebration for Teresa’s birthday on the first; significantly elaborate because he and Paul felt a need to over-compensate, as if the party and the toys could make up for the fact that she, like Johnny, had been abandoned by her mother. Then the weeks would pass, and it would be Scott’s birthday, which -- with the help of several bottles of Taliskers -- slid blurrily into Johnny’s. He simply moved the ‘celebration’ from Scott’s nursery (the long locked room Catherine had decorated in anticipation of their child) to the room where Johnny’s crib had once stood (this room); where he spent Christmas Eve mourning his son’s disappearance and his second wife’s betrayal. Then his own birthday, which passed with only timid acknowledgement from the housekeeper and Cip’s wife and family.
And so another year would finally pass, and he would plunge back into the business of ranching and shrewd investments; money needed to finance the search for one son, and more for the endless legal battle with Harlan Garrett in his attempt to recover the other.
The single shouted word roused Murdoch from his dark musings. He turned his focus on what was transpiring a mere foot away; on Johnny’s bed. Sam was standing in front of the youth now, one hand on Johnny’s shoulder; the other just inches from the boy’s nose as he shook a warning finger at his obstinate patient. “What’s wrong, Sam?”
Jenkins turned to look at the Lancer patriarch. “Just the usual, Murdoch,” Sam answered. “Your son seems to think he’s the one with the medical degree.” It was obvious the physician was finding it difficult to control his temper.
“He ain’t pinnin’ my arm down like he did the last time!” Johnny snarled; defiantly keeping his right fist curled around the edge of the mattress. His attention quickly turned to his elder brother, who was physically keeping him from standing up. “Get your fuckin’ hands off me, Boston! Now!!” He kicked out with his right foot, connecting with Scott’s left shin.
Murdoch was across the room and standing before his younger son in less than a heart beat. He waved Scott aside, taking Johnny’s right wrist in his large hand and prying his hand free from the rumpled sheeting. Carefully, but with sufficient force, he positioned Johnny’s arm until it was pressed firmly against the boy’s chest. “Will this do, Sam?” he asked, the words coming with a deceptive softness.
The physician nodded. Although it was awkward being in such close proximity with the big rancher, he proceeded with his usual efficiency; quickly unrolling the wide strip of cloth and skillfully winding it around the younger man’s upper torso. He brought the bandage up over Johnny’s left shoulder, twice, and then held it in place against the youth’s back; away from the young man’s nimble fingers. Johnny was notorious for discarding slings, bandages and other things he deemed a hindrance or unnecessary encumbrance. “There are two large safety pins in my bag, Scott. I need you to secure the bandage.”
Scott nodded his head and moved around his father to the opposite side of the bed. Feeling a bit vindictive over the kick and his sore shin, he thrust the first one into the thick cloth, resisting the urge to attach it to the skin on his brother’s back. “How long?” he asked, fastening the second pin in place.
“That depends,” Sam answered, “on how he behaves.” He smiled, standing back to admire his handiwork. “I intend to keep that arm pinned,” he emphasized the word, “until I’m sure there isn’t any risk of pulling the stitches.”
Johnny was sitting as still as a rock, his left fist clenched as he pounded it against the mattress; the cadence increasing. He was becoming more infuriated with each breath he was taking; aware of the crowding and hating it. “Get away from me,” he breathed, the words coming from between clenched teeth. “Just get the fuck away from me!”
Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched, an ominous frown coming as he struggled to retain control. “Sam,” he began, his tone harsh, “just how detrimental would it be to John’s recovery if I were to wash that mouth out with a bar of soap?” He had reached the limits of his fragile parental endurance.
The question surprised the doctor, and it showed in his face. He quickly recovered. From across the bed he heard Scott’s abrupt laughter; which immediately ceased when the blond caught the expression on his father’s face. Sam considered the question and finally answered. “I would recommend you use your shaving soap,” he suggested. “It’s round, just the proper size. No alkalis to speak of and it produces a generous amount of lather; although, since it’s scented I can’t imagine it tastes very pleasant. It worked well on my nephew when he had a similar problem,” he stroked his chin, “although it took more than one application.
“It wouldn’t hinder his recovery at all,” he finished.
The Lancer patriarch took a step closer to his younger son. Reaching out, he cupped Johnny’s chin against his closed hand, his thumb on the button of the boy’s chin as he forced his son’s head up to look him directly in the eyes. When Johnny attempted to avert his eyes, the big Scot bent forward slightly, willing the young man to meet his gaze. “I would suggest, son, you keep in mind what Sam has just said. If you continue to use that foul language in this house, you will become intimately acquainted with my shaving soap; and it will not be a pleasant experience.” Then, helping his younger son to his feet, he escorted him to the bedside chair.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Once the sheets were changed, Johnny found himself back in his bed. Maria had brought in some especially plump goose down pillows; adding a lamb’s wool pad for additional softness. She’d also brought him another cup of bitter tea, standing beside the bed until he had finished the vile tasting brew; smacking his fingers twice when attempted to throw it down in one gulp.
Scott was standing at the foot of the bed, watching. He had a book tucked under his arm; a thick volume he had fetched from his room. Tipping his head at the housekeeper as she took her leave; he returned her smile. Maria took her role as surrogate mother to Murdoch Lancer’s sons seriously; and she had wasted no time in assuming the responsibility.
“You should be happy she didn’t bring her spoon with her,” Scott grinned; addressing his brother.
Johnny was massaging his upper right arm, his fingers working the flesh the same way Scott had seen Maria kneading bread. He shot his elder brother a dark look. “Fuck you!”
The blond was shaking his head. “You know, little brother, I’m beginning to think I need to formulate a book of rules,” he announced. “A Big Brother Book of Rules,” he ventured, “one that includes a mandate regarding a way to keep you from having a steady diet of our father’s shaving soap.” He slipped the book he had been holding against his ribs to his hand and he held it up. “I think this will help.”
Johnny’s expression bespoke a myriad of emotions; none of them particularly charitable. “I ain’t goin’ to have this fuckin’ bandage forever, Boston,” he growled, “and I ain’t readin’ no book.”
Uninvited, Scott eased himself into the chair next to his brother’s bed. Wisely, he moved the chair just enough to be out of his sibling’s reach. “You don’t have to. I’m going to read it to you.”
The brunet’s face clouded and the Madrid mask fell into place. When he was on the mend from Pardee’s bullet, and later when he was recovering from the pneumonia, Scott had read to him on a regular basis; something he enjoyed. (Although he would never admit it.) But now it was a different matter. He was sick of being sick, and it was obvious from his mood he wasn’t willing to be entertained. “You try, and I’ll shove it up your ass!”
“Posterior,” Scott corrected. He displayed the book’s title, reading it aloud. “‘A Young Gentleman’s Guide to Proper Behavior,’” he announced. A smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth, his lips twitching. Harlan Garrett, red-faced and at once at a loss for words, had given him the book when he was fourteen; after the housekeeper had informed the proper Bostonian that his grandson was having ‘night-time emissions’. The book covered a variety of subjects, including wet dreams and masturbation; quaint now, in a time of relative enlightenment, but things Scott found amusing. He intended to share the archaic wisdom with his brother. “It was written by Louis Antoine Godey, the same gentleman who founded Godey’s Lady’s Book.” Teresa was a subscriber and avid reader of the magazine, something both brothers found amusing but sometimes -- when she fixated on an article -- downright annoying.
Johnny was not amused. “Get out,” he ordered.
“Ah. Page three, I think.” He thumbed through the pages, his finger tapping against the paper as he began to read. ‘When one feels it necessary to request another person’s departure, politeness requires that the petition be presented with the proper amount of decorum and in an appropriate tone of voice, so as not to offend or draw unnecessary or unwanted attention.’”
Fine, Johnny thought. He grinned across at his brother, a wicked warmth firing the blue eyes, the words coming in a soft drawl. “Okay, Scotty. Please get the fuck out of my room.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Scott scolded. “Your tone of voice and enunciation were quite good,” he declared, “but the obscenity…” He shook his head. “Page six,” he announced. Flick, flick, flick. Again, his extended forefinger snapped against the thick paper, twice. “‘Vulgar language is unacceptable in civilized and polite company…’”
Johnny clenched his teeth and rolled his eyes. “And if I ain’t exactly feeling civilized and polite?” he ground out.
Scott stretched out his legs and closed the book; resting it flat against his well-muscled thigh. His considered his next words very carefully. “When you fell, Johnny; just exactly how did you plan on taking care of your injury?” The words came softly, but there was a definite edge to them.
The sudden change in subject surprised the younger Lancer son. “What d’ya care?” he shrugged. “Had worse.”
Scott’s jaws tensed. “‘Had worse; I’m fine; been takin’ care of myself for a long time…’” he mimicked. “Do you know how tired I’m getting of hearing those phrases, brother?” He inhaled, deeply, not waiting for an answer. “I can see it now. You in the barn, dumping a pail of water over your shoulder -- Barranca’s water bucket, no doubt -- doing the stoic Madrid, lone wolf cub…”
“Shut up! Just shut the fuck up!” Johnny threw back the covers, his head spinning as he forced himself upright and swung his legs off the bed.
Scott immediately stood up, the book slipping from his lap as he reached out and grabbed his brother’s arm. “I don’t think so,” he said emphatically. “You almost died, Johnny!” Again. He was remembering the first night after Johnny’s fall; the spiking fever, his brother dehydrating before his eyes. His grip tightened until his sibling sat back down. “How long do you think you can go on risking your health, your life, before you end up dead?”
Johnny pulled away from his sibling’s hand, purposely averting his gaze rather than looking the man in the eye. “That comes to us all, don’t it, brother?”
“You have a family to consider now, Johnny.” Scott’s voice softened somewhat. “Murdoch, Teresa, me; Cip and the others. We care. You don’t have the right to play at life anymore; or to pretend it doesn’t matter if you live or die.”
The brunet was staring at the floor. “Nothin’ says I got to stay,” he mumbled. “I can leave.”
Scott closed his eyes. He backed away, easing down into the chair he had just vacated. Why is this so hard for you, boy? he wondered. “Run, you mean,” he countered. When he looked up, he was staring directly into his brother’s face, willing the younger man to look at him. “What’s it going to take to make you care, Johnny? To make you want any of this,” he gestured ambiguously towards the room; towards the open window, “bad enough to stay?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Murdoch won’t let it happen again, you know; won’t allow himself to lose you a second time.” When there was no response from his brother he tried again. “You own a third of this ranch, Johnny. That’s got to count for something.”
There was the sound of soft laughter from the bed; but no warmth in the voice. “You mean that piece of paper we signed?” Johnny drawled. “How good you figure that agreement between me and the Old Man is; me not bein’ legal and all?” There was something more than sarcasm in the youth’s voice; a suspicion that his father and his father’s attorney had made a fool out of him. “Pretty slick of the Old Man and his abogado -- lawyer,” he translated for his sibling. “Set you up, too, brother,” he scoffed, “if you think about it.”
The blond’s eyes narrowed slightly. He had switched his major at Harvard after the War, a fact he hadn’t shared yet with either his father or his younger brother, content to let them assume he had remained the dilettante he had been before his enlistment. If he had remained in Boston, he would -- by this time -- have been safely ensconced as a junior partner in the prestigious law firm co-owned by Harlan Garrett. One more thing his Grandfather would never forgive him for. He cleared his throat. “You don’t give the Old Man too much credit, do you?” he asked; smiling a bit as he remembered asking his brother that same question the morning after the fire. Instinctively, he knew that Johnny’s answer would be the same as it was then.
Johnny sensed what his brother was thinking and decided to play the game. “Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t give anybody too much credit,” he was watching his brother’s face. “It saves a lot of disappointment…”
“Disappointment in what?” Murdoch Lancer had just crossed the threshold. He was carrying a mug of freshly brewed tea; and there was a small envelope tucked in his shirt pocket. A glimmer of white light flashed briefly off the spoon that was also secreted there as he passed through the wide rectangle of sunlight streaming from the bedroom window.
What the hell, Johnny thought, throwing caution to the wind. If he was lucky, he’d get the Old Man pissed off enough he’d forget about the damned tea. “People,” he answered curtly. “And little pieces of paper that don’t mean fuckin’ shit, no matter what name you use when you sign ‘em.” It was clear he was talking about the partnership agreement.
Scott inhaled sharply and rose up from the chair. “Sir,” he said, nodding towards the seat he had just recently occupied; hoping his father would sit down.
Murdoch’s mouth was set in a grim line; his jaws working. Then, forcing a smile he didn’t quite feel, he sat down. He knew Johnny was baiting him. He also knew that this time, he wasn’t going to allow his son to prevail. Taking the small packet out of his shirt pocket, he poured the contents into the mug; using the spoon to stir the mixture, a muted bell-like sound coming as he tapped the utensil against the cup’s rim. “The agreement stands,” he announced. He offered the mug to his son.
Johnny laughed; the sound laced with a heartfelt bitterness. “Sure it does,” he snorted. The cup of tea remained a barrier between himself and his father.
“I gave you my word, John.” Murdoch intoned. “Drink.”
Scott, who had moved to the foot of the bed; shook his head and dragged his right hand across his face, a weariness in his voice as he called out his brother’s name. “Johnny…”
Murdoch said nothing. Showing a remarkable restraint, he simply put the mug down on the bedside table and stood up. He exchanged a brief look with his eldest and strode purposely out of the room; taking a sharp left turn as he headed down the hallway.
Johnny’s mouth turned upwards in a sudden, broad grin. “I win,” he gloated; canting his head as he smirked up at his brother. When he saw the older man didn’t seem to comprehend what he was saying, he nodded at the still full cup.
From the hallway, Scott heard and recognized the sound of the recently installed bathroom piping shuddering slightly as the water was turned on in the room just down the hall. He had the disquieting feeling his father was not simply washing his hands.
“So,” Johnny’s gaze was now on the floor; on the near-forgotten book Scott had dropped, “what’s that thing got to say about how to handle your Old Man when he’s bein’ a fuckin’ pain in the ass? I mean, that’s any better than the way I just took care of it?” He was feeling pretty cocky right now; having accomplished two goals: he wasn’t drinkin’ any fuckin’ tea, and the Old Man was outta his hair.
Scott crossed the few feet to the side of the bed, bending at the waist as he retrieved the thick missive. He chanced a look at his sibling as he stood up. Johnny’s eyes were dancing, the sapphire orbs brilliant against a face that was a shade paler than normal; the blue intensified by the velvet-dark lashes. Scott glimpsed, for a too-brief moment, not only what his brother must have looked like as a small child, but also the physical features his sibling had obviously inherited from his mother. Maria, he realized, had been an incredibly beautiful and vivacious woman. He shook the thought away and pretended to be leafing through the book he was holding. “Are you quite sure you’ve just handled our father, Johnny?”
The younger man snorted. “He’s gone, ain’t he? And I ain’t drinkin’ no tea.” Just as quickly, he changed the subject. He was scratching at his bandaged right shoulder with the fingers of his left hand. “This thing’s itchin’ like all holy hell,” he breathed.
“It’s not polite to scratch in front of someone, brother,” Scott grinned. “No matter where the itch.” The book was open now, and he was pointing to the crisp vellum.
Beyond them, from the hallway, came the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing; followed by the distinct tread of Murdoch Lancer’s long stride. Johnny looked up at his brother, still smiling. “Ever been in there,” he nodded in the direction of the bathroom, “after the Old Man’s dumped a batch of Maria’s tamales?”
Scott’s eyes closed, and he was shaking his head. Although he was inwardly pleased that his brother’s earlier mood had improved and Johnny was actually being playful -- a side of his younger brother he definitely liked -- this was entirely too much information. He decided, however, to encourage the play. “An individual’s personal hygiene habits are something else we don’t discuss in polite society,” he scolded. “Another lesson you’ll be learning, amongst other things.” To make his point, he held up the book again.
“Wanna bet?” Johnny laughed. “So you gonna help me get out of this bed, or what?” he asked.
“He is not,” came the answer from the doorway. Murdoch quickly crossed the room, passing between his eldest son and his youngest as he again took the seat beside the bed. He was holding another cup in his hand. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, holding the mug up for Johnny’s benefit.
Johnny stared briefly at the familiar cup, noting the elaborate design; the distinctive gold leaf Lancer “L” emblazoned on the side. Christ, he thought. What doesn’t he put his brand on? “Shavin’ mug,” he answered, noting the brush and the generous amount of suds.
“I told you that I keep my word, John.” Murdoch leaned forward a bit more in the chair. “Do you remember what I told you about your mouth and this soap?” He nodded at the mug.
Scott was staring hard at his father’s broad back. He opened his mouth to speak, changing his mind when he saw the look on Johnny’s face. Shaking his head at his brother, he put a single finger to his lips.
Johnny eyed his father suspiciously. He had pulled himself more upright in the bed, as much as he could, and knew he was doing a poor job of looking as if he were in control. Wary, he began picking at the loose threads on the edge of the quilt covering his knees. Somehow, it didn’t seem wise to open his mouth; but he wasn’t happy about the alternatives, either of them. He settled for a quick, single nod of his head.
“Good.” Murdoch leaned back in the chair. He made a point of putting the mug down on the table; close at hand. Then, he picked up the other cup; the one with the tea. He handed it off to his son. “The powder in the tea is for your fever,” he announced. “Drink.”
Again, Johnny debated his options. Like there were any. He took the cup, grimacing at the increased bitterness. The noise of his drinking and swallowing was the only sound in the room until he had finished.
Murdoch took the cup back; quickly checking it to make sure it was empty. Satisfied, he turned slightly in the chair to look at his elder son. “I want you to ride into Morro Coyo,” he began. “Tell Jonathan Randolph I need to see him here at Lancer. Tell him to plan on spending the night.” He turned back to his youngest. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to assure the agreement we signed is valid, John.” Then, reaching out, he touched the younger man’s forehead. “Tomorrow, if you don’t have any fever, you can get out of that bed and come downstairs.” When he saw the look of surprise, he repeated the first word. “Tomorrow. Until then, you stay put.”
The brothers watched as their father picked up the shaving mug and departed. Johnny was the first to speak. “Do you think he would’a done it?” he asked, the words coming softly. “Used the soap?”
Scott was staring at the open doorway. “In a heart beat,” he answered honestly. He was still thinking of the words his father had just spoken; the way he had spoken them. Turning to his brother, he was about to speak; only to find himself cut off by a loud summons from the Great Room.
“Our master’s voice,” the blond grimaced, fighting the instinct to cover his ears with his hands.
Johnny looked up at his brother. He was toying with the strings on the blanket again; methodically pulling them loose. “Your master,” he snorted.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stood in the small anteroom just outside Jonathan Randolph’s private office. Walter Vincent, the attorney’s clerk, had just returned to his small desk from the inner sanctum and was making a major production out of checking his appointment book. It was a move Scott was familiar with; the small ceremony of a man who needed to feel important in his role as intermediary. His Grandfather’s clerk behaved in the same manner; shared a similar penchant for being a pompous ass. “Mr. Vincent,” he began, his tone purposely neutral, “I’m sure you’ve known my father long enough to realize he is not the most patient of men. I really do need to speak with Mr. Randolph now.”
Vincent had begun shuffling papers that were stacked atop his desk; paper that were already in order. “I’ve informed him that you are here,” he announced.
“What you did, Mr. Vincent,” Scott countered, “was stick your head inside his door and tell him that someone was waiting to see him.” He flashed a smile; the one he usually reserved for people who were about to meet, head on, Scott in his Lieutenant Lancer mode.
“Walter, I’ve…” Jonathan Randolph stepped out from his inner office, his attention momentarily focused on the papers he held in his right hand. Then, looking up over the rim of his glasses, he caught sight of the eldest Lancer son. “Scott!” There was genuine surprise in his voice.
“Sir,” Scott nodded in greeting.
Randolph’s gaze shifted to his clerk, a brief frown coming. He chose not to say anything, although it was clear from the attorney’s face he was not happy. “Come in,” he invited, standing back and pointing the way with his full hand.
Scott followed the older man into his private office. The room held a familiarity for him; as well as some of the more treasured memories of the past few months. This was the place where it had all come full circle; where he and his brother and father had signed the partnership agreement that tied them not only to the land but, with a gossamer thread, to each other.
The attorney was gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. “You can sit down, Scott,” he smiled.
The blond chose to remain standing. “Murdoch wants to see you,” he said. “Tonight.”
Randolph had just opened the humidor on his desk; prying the tight fitting top loose with long, well-manicured fingers. “Sounds urgent,” he surmised, withdrawing two cigars. They disappeared into his vest pocket; safely stowed and packed into place with a firm pat of his hand.
Scott nodded. “He has a question about the partnership agreement.”
The lawyer laughed. “So how angry is he?” he asked. When he saw the expression on the younger man’s face, he continued. “It’s a question regarding Johnny; the fact he hasn’t reached his majority,” he stated, not at all surprised.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going on, Mr. Randolph?”
Already, the lawyer was gathering papers from the desk-side filing cabinet. “I’m not going to explain this twice, Scott. We’ll discuss it when we get to the ranch.” He nodded toward the door leading to the outer office and the front door. “I’m going to have to stop off at my home long enough to change into something suitable for riding.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He had managed to not only get out of bed, but to fetch a clean shirt and the extra pair of calzoneras. Problem now, he realized, was getting them on. And he was already sweating like a stud horse that had just serviced a string of mares.
Ain’t like it hasn’t happened before, he mused. Just gotta take my time. Only he didn’t have all that time to waste. It hadn’t been that long since he’d heard Scott and a second rider come into the courtyard.
Carefully, he padded back to the bed; dropping down on to the soft mattress. Gingerly, he shook out the shirt; positioning it across his lap with the left arm hole exposed. It took a considerable amount of effort, and -- in the end -- he resorted to pulling the shirt up his arm by using his teeth. He tugged it into place, reaching back with his left hand to arrange the collar and then to ease the fabric over his right shoulder.
He stood up. The pants were next. No point, he realized, in trying to tuck the shirt in. It was a pain in the ass as it was to get his fly secured; and he finally gave up on the top button. He remained standing; stalling a bit as he summoned what little reserve he had left, regretting that he didn’t even have the energy to look for a pair of clean socks. And then, filled with the usual stubborn determination that all too often replaced his instinctual common sense, he headed for the bedroom door.
Already, he could already hear the voices; the low, deep rumble of his father, the clearer baritone of his elder brother, and the almost subdued but firm voice he recognized as Jonathan Randolph’s. Using his left hand to feel his way down the wide stair case and mentally cursing the bandage that secured his right arm, he continued his barefoot trek. The trick, he knew, was in getting to the bottom of the staircase and staying hidden in the hallway. Not an easy task the way he was feeling; the way his stomach was doing flip-flops.
Once at the bottom of the stairs, he debated on charging right into the room and demanding to know what was going on. The smile came then, the crooked grin he always wore when he knew he was outnumbered and his chances were not only slim but not even worth the cost of a bullet. And then he heard it; Randolph’s voice, raised slightly and argumentative.
“For God’s sake, Murdoch! I’m your friend as well as your attorney. I’m not the only one that had some major concerns when you brought that boy home! It wasn’t as if everyone in Morro Coyo hadn’t seen him with Pardee; saw him aligning himself with the same man who was responsible for Paul O’Brien’s death and the murder of how many other innocent people?”
The frustration in the attorney’s voice was more than obvious, and Johnny could almost see the man raking his fingers through his thinning hair. Steeling himself, he started to move forward, only to stop mid step as he heard his father’s response.
“Johnny lured Pardee into making a move that resulted in the man’s death, and brought an end to the raids! He almost died carrying out a plan to…”
Randolph laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “Plan!? That boy doesn’t plan, Murdoch! He creates these little intrigues -- games -- ,” Johnny’s pranks had become almost legendary, along with his penchant for taking risks, “ -- and then chooses the path that suits his own skewed version of logic! There isn’t a man in Morro Coyo that hasn’t voiced the opinion that Johnny chose a big payoff as opposed to whatever Pardee may have offered…”
Murdoch’s voice again, thundering into bowels of the Great Room. “Do you think I really give a damn about what anyone else might think? My son…” he felt a need to repeat the words, “…my son is home, and entitled to what I promised him! One third of Lancer!”
There was a sound Johnny immediately recognized; the noise of glass chattering against glass. Murdoch was pouring drinks; brandy, the young man knew, well acquainted with the difference between the sounds of the heavier tumblers his father used for his Taliskers, and the thin almost chime-like sound of the more fragile snifters. He moved closer to the threshold, intent on listening.
“He has his one third,” Randolph answered. “The partnership agreement is valid. The only contingency is that you remain in control of his share until he turns twenty-one.”
Silence. “That’s not what I intended,” Murdoch snapped.
The lawyer again. “I didn’t think it would become an issue,” he breathed. The next words came even more softly. “Think of it, Murdoch. With Johnny’s reputation, with his propensity for getting into trouble…” He left the rest unsaid.
“You didn’t think he’d survive.” This from Scott; his tone angry and incredulous. “That he’d ever live to see twenty-one!”
Johnny found himself strangely comforted by the disembodied voice of his elder brother; the way he said the words. Scott was pissed.
“It’s my job to face the harsh realities of the world, Scott; not the fairy-tale endings people hope for.” The attorney’s tone matched the elder Lancer son’s.
“Goddammit, Jonathan!” Murdoch again; even angrier than Scott. It was a rare thing when the tall Scot swore; the words sounding even more vile coming from his mouth. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t fire you; shouldn’t bring you up before the bar!!”
Randolph didn’t even hesitate. “I can give you two,” he snapped. “You need me to help you take care of some business that should have been taken care of a long time ago; and you need to make up your mind just what it is you want for your son!”
Scott’s voice again; the soft baritone coming with the usual sense of reason, absolutely no fear in him as he asked the question. “What do you want for Johnny, Murdoch?”
“Redemption!” The answer came swiftly with a strange and powerful passion; something remarkable in the way, so unlike him, the Lancer patriarch had surrendered to his innermost feelings. There was a sound as he inhaled deeply; as if he were sucking his very life from his surroundings. “Salvation,” he murmured. “I want to save my son from the past his mother created, a past he’s paid for every single day since she took him!”
“Then be a father to him, Murdoch,” Randolph chided. He was done playing the Devil’s advocate. “Give him the direction he needs; and the time to learn what it means to be part of this…” he gestured with his glass towards the arched window behind Murdoch’s desk; to the vast land beyond as well as the two men standing with him in the Great Room, “…part of a family. He’s still a boy, Murdoch. He needs a father more than he needs a partner.”
Johnny was holding his breath. He hadn’t even realized he had inhaled at precisely the same time his Old Man had pulled in a lung full of air. And for the same reason.
Fear. An intangible, impalpable sense of dread of something not understood; something beyond his comprehension. But something he desperately wanted.
Needed. He stubbornly shook the thought away. I need a drink, he thought; swallowing hard. And something more than Maria’s fuckin’ tea.
Abruptly, Johnny turned to face the voice at the top of the stairs. Maria was standing there, a mug of steaming tea in her right hand; a deep frown marring her ordinarily genteel features. Closing his eyes, he realized she must have come up the back stairs from the kitchen; and that he had been so intent on his journey down the main stairway he hadn’t heard her. He shook his head at her, lifting a single finger to his lips and making a soft shhhh sound; immediately realizing his mistake as the voices in the Great Room suddenly ceased. “Fuck!” he muttered.
No point in tryin’ to hide now, he fumed. He turned, painfully aware of the woman at his back, even more aware of the sure and certain Hell that awaited him in the Great Room beyond the double doors.
Scott met him at the bottom of the steps. “What do you not understand about the word tomorrow?” he seethed, the words whispered through clenched teeth. Ignoring the fact his brother was trying to push him away; he grabbed the younger man’s left arm and guided him towards the couch. “Sit,” he ordered.
Murdoch was seated in his large over-stuffed chair beside the fireplace. Jonathan Randolph, a brandy snifter cupped in his right palm, was leaning against the mantle. Both older men were frowning, and it was obvious they had been quarreling.
Johnny chose to ignore the glares. His eyes swept the attorney; taking in the man’s attire. Randolph was wearing English style riding pants and boots, similar, Johnny realized, to Scott’s attire the day he had gone into Morro Coyo for new clothes. Only on the attorney, the outfit didn’t look all that good. Shutting the memory out of his mind, he shifted his gaze to his father. “You outta tequila?” he groused. It didn’t escape his notice that Scott had just picked up his own glass of brandy; the apparent beverage of choice for the other old farts.
Scott was now sitting next to his brother on the couch. He turned slightly, reaching back as Maria approached the sofa. Smiling, he took the proffered mug of tea and turned back to his sibling, intent on handing the cup off. “Your drink,” he announced.
The brunet made a not-so-subtle gesture with his left hand. “Why don’t you shove that…” he inhaled, catching the look Maria cast in his direction and quickly averting his gaze and lowering his voice, “…someplace the sun don’t shine.”
Murdoch came forward in his chair. “Drink the tea, John,” he ordered. It was clear he was not pleased with his son’s disregard for his instructions.
Johnny’s face colored. He was outnumbered; four to one. He was also beginning to regret his decision to make the trip down the stairs; a sudden wave of nausea bringing the bitter taste of bile to the back of his throat. Still, he was getting pretty tired of being told what to do and when. “No. Hell, no!”
Jonathan Randolph laughed. He saluted Murdoch with his glass. “I rest my case,” he declared.
Johnny’s head shot up. Something in the lawyer’s tone -- in the older man’s eyes -- set him on edge; primed the growing defiance. “You got somethin’ to say, abogado?” His tone, the way he said the word, made it sound obscene. Which was just what he intended. “I mean, more than you already been spoutin’ off about?”
Murdoch levered himself up from his chair; waving Maria away but indicating she should leave the tea. The discussion he and the attorney had been having had been quite heated, and his mood had not yet softened. “Scott, help your brother back up to his room.”
The blond remained seated. It was clear he was mulling something over in his mind; carefully choosing his words before addressing his father. “Sir,” he began, “since you and Mr. Randolph have been debating Johnny and the partnership agreement, don’t you think it would be prudent, as well as fair, that he be included in your discussion?” He looked up at his father, meeting the man’s dark scrutiny head on.
The big Scot’s face betrayed nothing. He was, however, impressed by his elder son’s quiet bluntness. Turning slightly, he exchanged a long look with the attorney. “Jonathan?”
Randolph was staring into his glass. Like Murdoch, he found himself admiring the younger man’s directness. “I agree with Scott,” he sighed. When Murdoch started to speak, the lawyer raised his hand; choosing instead to address the youngest Lancer son. “I knew when I drew up the partnership agreement you were not legally of age, Johnny. That fact doesn’t change the intent,” he nodded towards Murdoch, “of the agreement, or its legality. Your father has assigned equal shares of Lancer to both you and Scott, with the only provision being he is the one with the deciding vote and the final say in how this ranch is to be run.
“As to your age,” The attorney hesitated, his gaze once more focused on the remainder of the brandy at the bottom of his glass.
Johnny’s face clouded, his expression suddenly changing as the Madrid mask slid into place. “Already heard that part,” he announced, not caring that they would know he had been eavesdropping. “The Old Man’s got control of my share ‘til I turn twenty-one.” He smiled, but not with his eyes. “Figures.”
Feeling a need to bring himself down to eye level with his boys, Murdoch eased his long frame down onto the large ottoman. He turned slightly, looking up at Randolph; and then turned his gaze back to his sons. “Jonathan is here to address the issue of the partnership agreement, and to make any changes that might be necessary. We’ll figure this out.”
“What’s to figure, Old Man? That you and the shyster pulled a fast one?” He cast a long hard look at the attorney.
Scott realized things were about to get out of hand. He reached out with his left hand, placing it gently against Johnny’s right thigh, softly patting the younger man’s leg in an effort to calm him. Already, he could feel the younger man’s leg beginning the quick up-and-down dance that Johnny’s legs seem to do of their own accord when he was struggling to hold his temper; to remain in control. “Mr. Randolph isn’t a shyster, and Murdoch didn’t pull anything on either of us, brother,” he cajoled. “And I never even gave a thought to how old you were -- are -- although I probably should have.”
Johnny snorted. “So what now, brother? You all of a sudden got a law degree tucked up your …”
The blond was smiling. “Actually, Johnny, I…” he interrupted, looking up at his father. “I changed my major at Harvard when I returned from the War, sir,” he said; his expression one of slight amusement, as if he were laughing at himself, not the others. “Mother’s trust,” he continued. “I came into a substantial inheritance from her family when I turned twenty-one. It seemed only fitting I put the money to good use.
“Grandfather didn’t approve at first -- he’s old school, and felt if I was going to study law I should serve an apprenticeship. We reached a compromise: I attended Harvard Law half days and clerked with an attorney in Cambridge afternoon and evenings. I was preparing to take the bar examination when the Pinkerton agent approached me.” He shrugged a bit at the partial truth. Barbara had been an interesting, although temporary, detour. “Somehow, a trip to California seemed more…” the easy smile came again, “…challenging.” An understatement if there ever was one; he mused, considering all that had transpired.
Jonathan Randolph laughed. “I thought I sensed more to you than some fool given to twittering on about the Greek classics!”
“Jonathan!” Murdoch’s indignation was laced through and through with an unfamiliar feeling of paternal pride. He reached out, cuffing his elder son’s chin. “You could have said something,” he scolded.
Scott shot a look at his younger sibling before responding. “And spend the rest of my life sorting through contracts and financial reports whilst my brother is out having all the fun?” He laughed when he saw the expression on Johnny’s face. His brother’s idea of fun was definitely not stringing wire, chasing cows, or wading ankle deep in the muck in the ranch pig sty. “I think not!”
The room suddenly filled with the sound of laughter. Even Johnny had relented somewhat. His brother never ceased to amaze him. “So,” he drawled, a sly grin spreading across his face, “next time Val arrests my sorry ass, you’re the one gonna bail me out?”
Murdoch canted his head. He bent forward slightly to pick up the cup of tea Johnny had secreted on the floor in front of the couch; as if putting it out of sight was the same as putting it out of mind. “There isn’t going to be any next time,” he groused. But his mood was mellowing. “And your brother is going to be far too busy with those contracts to indulge your foolishness.” His gaze settled on his younger boy. “Drink,” he ordered, handing him the now tepid tea.
Johnny looked across at his father; wide-eyed with disbelief. The argument was already forming when he felt Scott swat his knee. “It’s fuckin’ cold!” A second smack followed the first one; this one hard enough to sting.
“Drink,” Scott echoed. His hand snaked out to rest on his brother’s forehead. “If the fever comes back, Sam will have your head.” He let the words sink in. “So will I.”
Jonathan Randolph watched the play between the brothers; smiling a bit as Johnny finally gave in. A month ago, he would have never thought it possible; the pistolero and the proper Bostonian at ease with each other. He was roused from his musings as the Grandfather clock began to toll the hour, holding his silence until the chimes ceased. “Eleven o’clock, gentleman,” he observed, drily.
Murdoch acknowledged the time with a slight lifting of his broad shoulders. “Then I would suggest,” he smiled, “we retire for the night, and conclude our business in the morning.”
It was, Scott knew, a dismissal. He reached out, taking the now-empty mug from his brother’s hand; nodding his approval at a job well done. “Now, was that so difficult?” he teased.
Johnny’s lips formed a silent fuck you. “Gonna help me up, or what?” he growled, extending his left hand.
Scott pulled his brother to his feet; hanging on a bit longer than he needed to. “If you’ll excuse us, sir?”
“Whatever,” Johnny tossed out.
Murdoch waved his sons away; watching as they departed and remaining silent until he heard the scuffling on the stairs. When he was certain his boys were out of hearing, he stood up, stretched, and addressed the attorney. “The things you said about Johnny, Jonathan; about what you’ve heard in Morro Coyo?”
The attorney moved to the couch and sat down. He was more relaxed now, and it showed in his face. He was silent for a moment; and reached in his pocket to withdraw the two cigars he had placed there earlier in the evening. Carefully, he trimmed the end of one and passed it on to Murdoch. “Morro Coyo and Green River,” he sighed. “Johnny’s behavior when he first arrived, his reputation…”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. He was leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees; close enough to the lawyer he could hear the man’s in-and-out breathing. When Randolph offered him a light, he pulled long and hard on the cigar, welcoming the bite of the strong tobacco against his tongue. “He’s my son,” he reiterated. “He did what he had to do to survive.”
Randolph risked a small glance at his companion. They had been friends for more than twenty years. “Some people have chosen to overlook the fact Johnny isn’t what they’ve read about in Buntline’s dime novels,” he reasoned. “They prefer to believe in the legend.” Hesitating, he chose he next words carefully. “It doesn’t help when Johnny seems determined to live up to their expectations, Murdoch.” He laughed a bit. “He does seem to enjoy testing the limits. I’ve lost count of the number of times Val Crawford has pulled him out of one scrape or another that bordered on the unlawful.” It was true. As a member of the City Council, Jonathan Randolph had begun to believe that -- as fast as the new ordinances were put in place -- Johnny seemed hell-bent on breaking them.
The Lancer patriarch had no desire to discuss Johnny’s past or current peccadilloes; or his son’s long, rarely discussed friendship with the local law. “We need to clarify the partnership agreement,” Murdoch stated, effectively avoiding both subjects.
“We need to amend your will,” the attorney countered. He raised his hand in anticipation of an interruption and plowed on. “You haven’t changed your will since your marriage to Maria and Johnny’s birth. I don’t know why, and I haven’t pressed the issue. But Johnny’s coming home changes things. The fact he’s alive produces yet another enigma: what proof do you have that Maria is dead?” he asked bluntly.
Murdoch remained quiet for a time. “I know as much about what happened to Maria as I know about my son’s past,” he admitted; his voice betraying the uncertainty as well as the pain.
“So the possibility exists,” Randolph ventured, “that she’s still alive.” He paused. “What conclusion did Alan Pinkerton finally come to, Murdoch?” The attorney was well aware that the two Scotsmen had known each other from childhood; a fact that had assured the elder Lancer the famed detective would be willing to continue the search even in the lean times when money was tight. Murdoch, however, had been less than willing to share all the sordid details of what had been reported; mostly because there had been so many false leads and so much that was just speculation.
“I need a drink,” Murdoch said, rising up from his seat on the ottoman. This time his beverage of choice was Taliskers, and he held the bottle out to his friend. Randolph shook his head and pointed to the brandy decanter. Murdoch refilled the man’s glass, but remained on his feet. He crossed the room to the big window behind his desk, looking out into the darkness; seeing nothing but his own reflection. He had grown old looking out this window, waiting for his sons. “Alan’s detectives established that Johnny was brought to a Catholic orphanage when he was about ten, by a woman who claimed she had found him sick and abandoned in her village. I have no idea who the woman was.” Or wasn’t, he thought darkly. Hesitating, he stared for a moment into his still-full glass before continuing.
“The priests recorded Johnny’s arrival, the fact that he had strikingly blue-eyes, and that he was obviously of Anglo stock.” He purposely avoided using the word the Pinkerton’s had reported to him: casta; the derogatory term used throughout New Spain to identify a person of mixed blood. “Johnny ran away before the Pinkerton’s could negotiate…” the word came with a great deal of bitterness, “…his release, or find out anymore about how he came to be there, or who the woman was that left him behind. After that, there was nothing until the stories of Madrid began surfacing; the boy pistolero, alone…” This time, Murdoch took a long drink from the leaded glass tumbler. Johnny had barely turned fifteen when the Madrid myth first started, and he had made a game of eluding the Pinkertons.
And Murdoch had never asked his son why.
“You’ve accepted a lot on faith, old friend,” Randolph mused.
“What you mean is how do I truly know he’s my son?”
The attorney was leaning back against deep cushions at the corner of the couch, and had positioned himself awkwardly in order to look at the man across the room. “I knew he was Maria’s -- and yours -- the minute I saw him in my office,” he announced, not one mote of doubt in his voice. “Sam said the same thing the first time he saw him after he was shot.
“What we’re discussing here, however, is not who Johnny is, or was, but how we’re going to deal with the reality he’s not of age, and his mother could still be alive.”
It hit Murdoch suddenly, with the same force as a hammer striking hot iron against an anvil; just what the attorney was suggesting. That if his wife was still alive, if she was to become aware that Johnny had come home… He turned, crossing the room to join the attorney; choosing to remain on his feet in front of the fireplace. Absently, he picked up the poker and repositioned a large log, rotating it on the grate to expose the burning underbelly; lost for a moment as the hungry flames turned bright orange and a shower of sparks spiraled up the chimney. “You know what it cost me to keep that reporter from Sacramento from selling the story he fabricated about Johnny; but that didn’t stop the gossip. Johnny’s return to Lancer has been fodder for everyone in this part of the state who learned of his past and about his supposed relationship with Pardee,” he grimaced, still angry about the rumors that had spread throughout the valley.
“And the border isn’t that far away,” Jonathan noted. “If Maria is alive, and she was to discover Johnny is here, she could very easily assert her rights as his mother.” He found himself thinking about the woman, remembering her as she was: beautiful, manipulative, and extremely deceptive. “If she could convince Johnny you had thrown them both out, think how compelling she could be in front of male jury telling her sad tale of woe.” He neglected to mention what a clever attorney could do to place the blame for her transgressions on a supposedly hard-hearted husband; knowing he was about to trespass even more. “It would all come out, Murdoch. That Maria was with child when you married her; your battles with Harlan Garrett and why you failed to regain custody of Scott.” His face clouded, and he raked the fingers of his right through his thinning hair. “One way or the other, Johnny would become her golden calf, especially under the terms of your will as it now exists.”
The tall Scot poked savagely at the burning log. “I’ve been such a fool, Jonathan,” he muttered.
“You were in love with her,” the attorney reasoned, silently cursing himself for not having encouraged Murdoch to either have the woman declared dead, or divorcing her. Then, swiftly, he changed the subject. He was going on a fishing expedition; and smiled at the challenge. “Scott and Johnny,” he began. “They seem to get along quite well.”
Murdoch had stopped fiddling with the fire. He replaced the poker, standing for a time watching the flames, the warm glow softening his features; making him look less tired. If he was puzzled by the abrupt change in direction their conversation had taken, it didn’t show. “Yes,” he agreed. “There are times,” he smiled, “when they get along too damned well.”
Randolph smiled. He knew immediately what his friend was referring to. The Lancer boys, in truth, shared a sense of mischief; and there had been several incidents in Green River that had hinted at some intense, brotherly competition. “I was watching Scott this evening. He seems to take his position as elder brother quite seriously, and Johnny doesn’t really seem to mind.”
Again, Murdoch laughed. “I think Johnny enjoys the attention, although he’d never admit it. He also admires Scott.” He nodded his head thoughtfully. “Sometimes, it’s as though they’ve never been apart. Even on that first day, there was some connection between them, an alliance almost.”
The attorney stood up and stretched; a subtle pop coming as his game right shoulder rebelled against the move. “You are a formidable figure of a man, Murdoch Lancer,” he observed. “I imagine both of those boys took one look at you and debated running!”
A dry chuckle this time from the big Scot as he remembered his first meeting with his sons. “They were defiant,” he said; “both of them, in their own way.” You’ll do as your told, he had said to his eldest. Will I? Scott had immediately answered back. And Johnny… “Ice and fire,” he said, the words coming softly. “Where is this going, Jonathan?” he asked, certain now the attorney had a motive in his questions.
“Do they ever disagree?” The attorney was very adept at answering a question with a question.
Murdoch debated his answer. “Yes.”
“And what happens?” Randolph was behind the couch now, helping himself to another snifter of brandy.
The Lancer patriarch was beginning to feel like he was being cross-examined. “That depends,” he replied. “If it appears they are going to reach some accord on their own, I don’t interfere.” He paused for a moment. “If the quarrel continues, I put an end to it.” His head lifting, he stared across at his friend. “Quit beating around the bush, Jonathan. What do you want?” he asked.
“When we draw up the codicil to your will, Murdoch, you’re going to need to designate someone as Johnny’s guardian; to act on your behalf if you aren’t available, or --” he hesitated, “-- in the event anything should happen to you before his twenty-first birthday.” The attorney lifted the brandy snifter to his lips, watching his friend’s face over the rim of the glass as he waited for the words to register.
Murdoch’s mouth quirked in a wry smile, his eyes warming as he read the man’s mind. “And you think Scott should be that someone,” he reasoned.
“Yes. And I think you should ask him tonight, so we can get this settled.” The attorney watched as the big hand on the Grandfather clock jumped closer to its smaller mate at the midnight mark. “We’re going to need witnesses tomorrow as well.”
“Sam will be here in the morning. And I can send someone over to Aggie’s; to ask her to come.” Murdoch inhaled; raising his hand to brush away a sudden chill at his neck. What was it, he wondered, about dealing with his own mortality that created this feeling he was tempting fate? He shook the thought away. “I had Maria prepare the guest rooms off my study, Jonathan.”
The attorney nodded. He finished the last of his brandy. “I wasn’t being deceptive about the partnership agreement, Murdoch; just cautious. I’ve just been concerned for some time about your will. If there is even a remote possibility Maria is still alive, you have to take steps to assure both Scott and Johnny are protected. You understand that.”
Murdoch considered Jonathan’s words and then nodded his head. “I’m a stubborn man, Jonathan. I realize that. I should have taken care of this when the boys first came home.”
Jonathan smiled. “Truce?”
The Scot extended his right hand. “Fee adjustment?” he countered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch stood at the top of the stairs, his eyes exploring the long hallway. There was no light coming from beneath Johnny’s bedroom door. It was a different story at Scott’s doorway. The pale glow of his bedside lamp was obvious in the darkened hallway; a muted circle of pale yellow light streaming from beneath the door to illuminate a half-moon portion of carpeted floor.
He proceeded down the hallway, his tread remarkably light for a man of his size. Then, reaching Scott’s door, he tapped twice; smiling when he heard his son call out: come.
The blond immediately rose to his feet when he saw his father cross the threshold. Boots off, he had been reclining on the bed; reading. “Johnny’s sleeping,” he said. He gestured to the chair beside his bed.
Murdoch reached out, fingering the book his son was holding; the younger man’s fingers keeping his place. “‘The Three Musketeers,’” he observed. He eased his long frame into the bedside chair, stretching out his long legs, crossing them at the ankles.
Scott smiled. “I wanted to read it again before I synopsize it for Johnny.” The smile grew. “If I tell him the shorter version, I can actually get him to sit still long enough to read him the entire book.”
There was a brief silence between the two men. Scott knew his father had something he wanted to say, but he was not going to push. Instead, he chose to lie back down on his bed; pulling his pillows up high against the headboard and settling in.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Does…Can Johnny read, Scott? I mean, read well.” It wasn’t the question he intended on asking, but he couldn’t stop himself. There was so much about Johnny he didn’t know.
Scott’s cheeks flushed slightly, and he shifted in the bed until he was on his side, elbow cocked, and his right cheek resting on his palm as he faced his father. “I asked him that. Well, actually, I asked him what kind of books did he like to read, but he knew what I really wanted to know.” The smile came, wrinkling the skin at the corners of his pale eyes; the orbs filled with incredible warmth and pride. “He quoted The Iliad,” he announced. “‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus…’.”
The big rancher’s brows rose in surprise. “Where…?”
Shaking his head, Scott’s expression matched his father’s. “All he said was that I wasn’t the only one who had read to him in his life; and that, yes, he could read. In Spanish and in English.” He laughed, softly. “He really put me in my place, Murdoch!”
“I’d wager that he did!” the man smiled. Almost immediately, his expression changed. “Why is it, Scott, that a man like Val Crawford knows more about your brother than we do? And that neither one of them has the courtesy to tell us why?”
Scott remained quiet for a time, thinking over his father’s questions. He inhaled. “I don’t think it’s a matter of courtesy, sir,” he finally answered. “I think it’s a matter of trust; the trust between two friends.” He lifted his head to look across at his father. “I asked Val once, about how he knew Johnny. He told me it was Johnny’s story to tell, not his.” His face eased into yet another smile, this one almost shy. “‘The matter is not open to discussion,’” he murmured.
“Eh?” Murdoch’s features hardened, and he wondered briefly if his son was mocking him.
“Val’s very much like you, Murdoch,” Scott announced. “Rock solid, stubborn, and not that inclined to share confidences.” He was watching his father’s face closely. “That was a compliment, sir.”
Murdoch’s expression softened. “Thank you, I think,” he muttered. It seemed like a good idea to change the subject. “I saw you feel Johnny’s forehead, when we were downstairs. Is he running a fever?”
Scott shook his head. He knew his father would check on his brother, no matter what he told him. “No, sir. He was warm, but I think it was just from the effort put forth in coming down the stairs.” And standing quietly in the hallway; resisting the urge to break in on the conversation. “He heard everything, you know.”
There was a soft sound; the noise of thick fabric stretching beneath the bulk of the large man who was seated in the overstuffed chair, as he turned slightly to pick up a second book from Scott’s nightstand. He held the volume up, surveying the title, A Young Gentleman’s Guide to Proper Behavior. “Can I safely assume there is something in this book about the vile habit of eavesdropping?” he inquired drolly.
Laughter again, from the younger man. “Yes. Amongst other things I intend to share with my little brother.” He shifted on the bed again. “What do you want, Murdoch?” he asked.
Caught, the older man avoided his son’s eyes. “Do you and Johnny talk, Scott? I mean beyond when you are working together?”
The younger man nodded. Without realizing it, he had begun tugging at the fine threads on the damask bedspread; stopping himself as he comprehended he was mirroring the oft seen nervous habit of his younger sibling. “We talked tonight, before he fell asleep,” he answered. “Johnny thinks I should familiarize myself with California law and pursue my license.” He purposely kept his eyes lowered, hiding the smile.
Murdoch stared at his son. What he was seeing was Catherine: Catherine’s eyes; the long, ash-blond lashes that had so entranced him when he saw her the very first time. Both of his sons had such incredibly expressive eyes. “Really,” he said, no small degree of humor in his voice. “And may I ask why?”
Scott’s tone matched his father’s. “He wants me to defend him in his lawsuit against you over the partnership agreement,” he laughed. Warily looking at the closed bedroom door, he stifled the sound with his hand.
The big Scot was doing a better job of restraining himself, although his shoulders were shaking. “‘Brass cajones’,” he coughed out. He turned to face his elder son. “That much, Val has shared,” he announced. “That your brother has brass cajones.”
"You haven’t answered my question, Murdoch.” If nothing, Scott was persistent. “What do you want?” His brow furrowed and he rephrased the question, his voice softening. “What do you need?”
Murdoch was slouched back in the chair, his hands clasped just below his belt; his thumbs making slow, lazy circles. “Jonathan has suggested I ask you if you would consider being named as Johnny’s guardian when he amends my will tomorrow.”
Scott’s head came up suddenly; his expression clearly one of great surprise. “Johnny’s guardian,” he breathed. The thought was overwhelming, but certainly intriguing. He smiled; and then immediately sobered. “You mean in the event something were to happen to you before he reached his majority.” His voice drifted off as he considered the true implications of what his father was asking. His father. “I just found you, sir,” he continued, the words coming in a near whisper. “The mere idea of losing you…” His voice faltered.
Touched by his son’s quiet, unspoken affection, Murdoch reached out; his hand coming to rest on the young man’s shoulder. “I don’t plan on going anywhere, Scott,” he declared. “The reality is, things happen, and we all need to be prepared.” He shrugged. “I’ve put this off far too long. You boys are home now, and I need to address that.” Smiling, he continued. “Better now than fifty years hence when I’m a doddering old fool in diapers who can’t recognize his own reflection in a mirror!” He felt a need to reassure his son, and hoped he wasn’t failing. “The Lancer family has a long history of octogenarians; men and women who have thrived into their eighties. I intend to follow their examples.”
Scott wasn’t entirely convinced. “And your parents, sir? Your father?”
It was a place Murdoch really didn’t want to go. He had loved his parents, but he had found himself loving the sea, and then Lancer, even more; and his promises to return home once he had left had been broken. “My father passed two years ago, Scott. He was eighty-seven years old. My mother, who was a year younger, followed him in less than a month. A broken heart, I think. I don’t ever remember them being apart.”
Was it regret he heard in his father’s voice, Scott wondered. Or guilt? He put the thought aside with the other conundrums that filled his life. Then, thinking of what his father had originally proposed, he smiled. “Johnny’s guardian,” he mused. He canted his head slightly, looking directly at the man sitting so tall in the chair next to his bed. “Big brother, and his guardian.” Immediately, he sat up and extended his hand. “It will be my pleasure,” he beamed.
Murdoch looked at his son skeptically, a bemused smile coming that reached his eyes. “There’s pleasure, and then there is pleasure, my son,” he warned.
“May I ask, sir, who’s going to be the one to tell Johnny of your,” he corrected himself, “our decision?”
The big Scot was smiling broadly when he got up. “Why, Jonathan, of course!” he answered. “That’s why I pay him the handsome retainer. To do all the hard work!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny awoke to the feeling of the sun on his face and the sight of his elder brother rummaging in his dresser. He forced himself up on his left elbow; swearing softly at the kink in his neck; and the feeling of sand in his eyes. “Lookin’ to borrow a shirt, big brother?” he asked sourly. “What the hell time is it anyway?”
“Almost noon,” Scott answered, pulling the now clean and patched red shirt from the top shelf, aware it was Johnny’s favorite. He grinned, turning around. “Since you slept through breakfast,” he nodded towards the open window, “Maria’s decided you’re going to need a decent lunch.” He shook out the shirt, folding it across his arm as he went in search of a clean pair of pants. “You do know, brother, there are other colors in the universe besides red, black and brown,” he scolded; “and it is permissible to own more than two pairs of pants and two shirts.”
“Why?” the younger man scoffed. “Clean, dirty,” he mused. “Kinda like boots.” He finger-combed his hair, swearing louder this time as he discovered another cramped muscle. “Sam comin’ today?” The crankiness was in his voice.
“Yes.” The blond was opening drawers, rooting through the socks; smiling as he pulled out a single white sock with a hole in its heel. “You know, it works better if you put this in the mending basket instead of back in the drawer.”
“For you, maybe,” Johnny snorted. “Maria has my ass every time I drop something in that fuckin’ basket, and T’resa ain’t much better.”
Scott laughed. “Maybe that’s because I pair up my socks before I pass them on; wash or mending.”
“Well, whoopee for you, big brother!” Johnny’s mood was deteriorating rapidly. “Sam’s gonna take off this fuckin’ bandage,” he ground out. “Today. I ain’t sleepin’ on my back again!”
Scott carried the pile of clothes over to the bed. “Nightmares?” he asked softly, already knowing the answer. Johnny only slept on his back during siesta. Otherwise, he always slept on his stomach, his pistol in his right hand; either under his pillow or his blanket. It was, Scott knew, the only time he slept reasonably well.
Johnny’s head dipped; his chin resting against his chest. “The Old Man came in last night, covered me up,” he said, avoiding the question. “Felt my head to see if I had a fever.”
“And you pretended you were asleep,” Scott breathed, not at all surprised by the revelation. He was helping his brother into the shirt; standing back to watch him work the buttons.
The brunet nodded. He shook his left hand, trying to dispel the tingling feeling; then resumed working the wooden toggles through the buttonholes. “Figured if he knew I was awake he’d be on me again about wearin’ a fuckin’ nightshirt.”
Scott smiled; thinking about his brother’s pet names for things he didn’t like or he was angry at; especially when he was confined to the house: fuckin’ nightshirt, fuckin’ basket, fuckin’ bandage; and, when he was really stirred up, fuckin’ greenhorn and fuckin’ Old Man. The laughter came then, which he tried to suppress, and he failed miserably. “My apologies, brother,” he puffed. “I was just thinking of all the things that fall under your fuckin’ whatever list.”
Johnny’s head came up; the pout giving way to a smile. “Fuckin’ smart ass!”
Scott handed his brother his pants. “I’m happy to see your mood is improving, Johnny.” He turned slightly, facing the open door, and sniffed. “Chocolate cake,” he crooned, raising a hand and pretending to pull the aroma into the room with a backward wave of his hand.
“Socks,” Johnny said, wiggling his fingers. His nose was already twitching; which prompted his stomach to rumble.
Scott handed the white stockings to him one at a time, dropping down to one knee to help when he heard the fuckin’ socks! “Murdoch will be coming up here if we don’t hurry,” he cautioned.
“Fuckin’ big deal,” Johnny snorted. He was smiling again.
“Fuckin’ shaving soap,” Scott countered, “if you don’t watch out.” He stood up, smacking his brother’s knee as he pulled himself erect.
Johnny stood up. He was looking for his boots; frowning when he didn’t see them. And then he remembered. “Shit! Murdoch took my boots last night!!”
“Well, you did sneak downstairs when he told you to stay put,” Scott joshed.
“Yeah, and I was barefooted when I did it!” the younger man snapped.
“My point, exactly. If you’d had your boots, you’d have been out of the house and in the barn trying to saddle Barranca.” Scott reached out, taking his brother’s free arm.
They headed for the stairway, Scott moving to Johnny’s right as they headed down the stairs. Ignoring his brother muttered complaint, he cupped his brother’s bandaged elbow in his left hand. Still hanging on when the reached the bottom of the stairs, he lead his brother into the Great Room.
“Hey! Kitchen’s that way, Scott!” Johnny attempted to put on the brakes. And then he heard the voices coming from the dining room. This time, he did pull to a stop. “No fuckin’ way,” he breathed.
“We’ve got company, brother,” Scott admonished. “Jonathan Randolph’s still here, Sam just arrived, and so has Aggie Conway. We’re eating in the dining room.” He turned his brother to him, straightening the younger man’s collar and smoothing it into place. It wasn’t the easiest task, considering how long his brother’s hair was. Giving up, he fluffed the boy’s hair away from his ears and the back of his neck.
“Jesus Christ, Scott! Whatta ya gonna do next, spit clean my fuckin’ ears?” Johnny whispered. He smacked at his brother’s hand.
Scott stubbornly held on. “No. Maria and Aggie Conway did a very thorough job of giving you a proper sponge bath after you were hurt,” he announced, biting his lips when he saw his brother’s face begin to color. He gave the younger man a shove towards the open doorway.
The brothers stumbled into the dining room, Johnny’s mouth going a hundred miles an hour as he ragged on his elder brother; his voice lowering to a hoarse whisper. “What the hell do you mean Maria and Aggie Conway?” he demanded. He had known he had been cleaned up after the fall, but assumed Sam had done the scrubbing. It had never occurred to him that anyone else had sponged the dirt from his body. “Jeez!”
The blond leaned in closer. “Would you rather it had been Teresa?” he asked.
Johnny fairly choked at the thought. “T’resa!” His voice went up almost an octave. “Jesus F…”
“Boys.” Murdoch’s voice cut into the verbal altercation; his voice calm, his tone cautionary. He smiled as the tussling immediately stopped. “How are you feeling, son?” he asked amicably. There would be fireworks soon enough, he knew, as the afternoon progressed.
Suddenly the unwanted center of attention, Johnny hesitated at the doorway. “Fine,” he answered; eyeing his father suspiciously before turning to look at everyone. They were there, all of them. He found himself staring directly into Aggie Conway’s green eyes. “Ma’am,” he nodded.
She had been standing beside Murdoch; to his left. Wearing low-heeled boots, a split riding skirt, dark green shirt and short leather vest -- her ash blond hair swept up into a loose twist -- she was undeniably attractive; a fact that had not escaped either Lancer son the first time they met her. Smiling, she stepped away from the tall Scot, moving gracefully across the room to where Johnny was standing beside his brother. She reached out; patting the young man’s face gently before withdrawing her hand to give him a motherly peck on the same cheek. “You look so much better, Johnny,” she smiled.
Better than what? he wondered; turning an even deeper shade of pink as he recalled what Scott said about his ‘proper sponge bath’. How the hell could a sponge bath be all that proper; him naked as a jay bird and two women scrubbing his nether regions? He felt Scott poke him in the ribs and managed to muster a quiet “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Shall we?” Murdoch asked. He was at the foot of the table now, an amused smile on his face as he pulled out the chair and watched as Aggie settled in.
One by one, the others took their places; Murdoch at his usual place at the head of the table, Scott on his right, Johnny on his left. Teresa had taken the seat next to Johnny, and Sam had settled in on her left. Jonathan Randolph chose the chair next to Scott.
The lunch was elaborate for a weekday, noon-time meal. Maria had taken great care to ensure the foods were Johnny’s favorites; although -- because of his recent bout of illness -- they were not the spicy Mexican dishes he ate with such relish and a great deal of salsa. Light, buttermilk dumplings swimming in a rich broth rested across a long row of fork-tender, deboned chicken breasts; sprigs of fresh parsley decorating the deep platter. There was a dish of candied carrots topped with fresh butter, and Aggie had provided a crock of her cranberry preserves. Scott never tired of the delicacy; which was mixed with the pulp of fresh oranges and walnuts. The tang of the chopped cranberries and the citrus, although heavily sugared, complimented the chicken and dumplings perfectly; and reminded him of Boston.
Sam chuckled; unable to stop himself as he watched Scott place another helping of food on Johnny’s plate, a smile coming as he saw the blond quickly cut the meat. “You do know Maria has made cake?” he asked, peering around Teresa to speak to the dark-haired youth.
Johnny was in the process of taking yet another bite of chicken; quietly annoyed that his brother had fairly diced the meat. “Been almost a week,” he said. “Nothin’ but broth, tea, and those d…” he inhaled “powders you left.” He curled his lips around the piece of meat and sucked it from the fork. “Just makin’ up for lost time.”
“Page ten,” Scott murmured. He shot a look at his sibling. “‘A proper gentleman does not speak with his mouth full,’” he teased.
Johnny chose that particular moment to lick his forefinger. “No kiddin’,” he chomped. His belly was getting full; but not so full there wasn’t going to be any room for cake. Just to rile his brother, he put his left elbow on the table.
Murdoch shoved back his chair as Maria began picking up the empty plates. Teresa rose up from her seat to help; quickly reaching out to retrieve Johnny’s dish.
“Hey! I wasn’t done yet!” Johnny made a move to grab the dish back, only to feel his broth-slick fingers slip across the smooth china.
The young woman was smiling. She looked across to Scott, biting her lip to stop the laughter. “I’ve been reading that book, too, Johnny,” she fibbed; although she had taken a look at the table of contents before Scott pried it out of her fingers. “It has a section on the seven deadly sins.” She decided to recite them: “Anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony,” she stressed the word, “lust, pride, and sloth. I’m just trying to protect your soul.”
Johnny was not amused. He was about to respond when he spied Maria; who had returned from the kitchen carrying the chocolate cake, a three-tiered masterpiece. Then, cutting his eyes to glare at Teresa’s back, he mumbled something under his breath that was not at all complimentary. Sure there ain’t one in there about how to get rid of stab you in the back, pain-in-the-ass bitches?
Not quite sure of what he had heard, Murdoch leaned forward. “Do you have something you want to say, Johnny?”
The brunet started to shake his head, but -- thinking about the cake -- reconsidered. “Just said my back itches,” he lied.
Sam was the first to respond. “I’m sure it can wait until we’ve had dessert,” he smiled.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The physician was changing Johnny’s bandage. They were in the younger man’s bedroom; Scott standing at Sam’s right as the man finished applying a fresh layer of gauze which he had prepped with ointment.
Johnny was flexing his right arm; clenching and unclenching his fingers. “When can I get out of here?”
Scott’s face hardened briefly at the question; the wording of it, his memory of Johnny’s threat to leave still fresh in his mind. He said nothing, afraid of losing his temper; choosing instead to cross his arms in front of his chest.
Sam was already taking out a fresh supply of linen bandages. “You can go anywhere in the house you want, Johnny.” He looked up at Murdoch. “However, knowing you, and the way you tend to ignore both what your body tells you, and what I say; anywhere else is absolutely out of the question.” Aware there was going to be an argument; he began the task of binding the younger man’s chest.
Murdoch’s gaze settled on his elder son. He recognized the younger man’s stance. Like Johnny, Scott had the habit of folding his arms across his upper torso. The difference between his sons, however, was -- where Johnny used the mechanism as a way of withdrawing into himself, hiding, almost; Scott usually assumed the position when he was either deep in thought or consciously maintaining control over his emotions. He decided just to let things lie. “How long, Sam?”
Before answering, the doctor motioned to Scott; placing the young man’s hand on the roll of bandage resting against Johnny shoulder, and then moving to the opposite side of the bed until he was standing directly in front of his patient. “Until I tell him otherwise,” he snapped. “I need you to put your arm back where it was, Johnny.” He was already anticipating the argument.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “No.” And then, “No fuckin’ way!” he raged. As he had done the first time, he grabbed the edge of the mattress with both hands; hanging on as if he were on board an unbroken mustang about to be turned out of the chute.
Sam turned a weary eye to the Lancer patriarch. “I take it you’ve changed your mind about dosing that mouth with your shaving soap?” he asked.
Murdoch’s jaws tightened. He ignored the question, choosing instead to deal with his son and the issue of the bandage. Standing tall and formidable above his youngest, he reached out. “I’ll not stand for anymore of this foolishness, John.”
Johnny felt his father’s fingers tighten around his right wrist. It was, he knew, useless to fight the man. It didn’t help that Scott was standing behind him; holding the still rolled up bandage against his shoulder as if he was intent on keeping him from moving so much as an eyelid. He felt a now-familiar clawing deep in his belly; the sense of panic that always came when his new found family hovered or fussed over him. It was, as always, overwhelming. And, unlike his elder brother, he found himself unable to deal with the internal conflict. “Can’t do this, Old Man,” he murmured.
Taken aback, Murdoch sensed the desperation in his son’s voice. “Do what, son?” he asked softly. Then, suddenly understanding, he turned to face the physician. “Is this necessary, Sam?” He tapped Johnny’s right arm with his forefinger.
Sam’s face was grim. He continued wrapping the bandage. “Until I take the stitches out, yes,” he declared. Gently, he worked the last few inches of three-inch wide linen over the youth’s shoulder, holding it in place as Scott secured the pins. Stepping back, he addressed the young man. “I’ve seen how you sleep, Johnny. Always on your stomach, always with that right arm up, your hand tucked under your pillow. I didn’t patch you up to have those stitches tear free.” Then, feeling the usual frustration he felt with the boy, “for once, young man, we’re going to do this my way.”
Scott was still behind Johnny. He tapped his brother lightly on his left shoulder. “Don’t fight it, little brother,” he said softly. Gently, he eased the younger man’s left arm into the sleeve of his shirt.
Johnny said nothing. He simply pulled away from his brother and finished putting on his shirt. “So now what?” he muttered.
Murdoch straightened. “We have some business to take care of downstairs,” he answered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They assembled in the Great Room. Johnny, still sullen, was unusually quiet. Murdoch had given him back his boots, and he had immediately, although awkwardly, found his spurs and put them on: taking some solace from the soft bell-like jingle. He was sitting on the arm of the couch, apart from the others who were standing around Murdoch’s desk, his right leg cocked across his left knee; the fingers of his left hand spinning the silver rowel first one way, then the other.
His eyes were as busy as his fingers. He watched as Scott settled into Murdoch’s large leather chair, grinning a bit when his brother listened dutifully to Jonathan Randolph and then transcribed whatever the attorney dictated. Finally, Randolph seemed satisfied, and he laid out the three sheets of vellum for Murdoch’s inspection.
Scott stood up, and Murdoch took his usual place behind the desk. There was a long moment of silence as Murdoch reviewed the documents. Nodding his head, the big Scot leaned back.
The young man stood up, surprised at the summons, but not showing it. “Yeah?” He was on his feet, but he wasn’t moving.
Murdoch’s head canted. It was clear from his expression he was not happy with what he rightly perceived as his younger son’s insolence. Still, he held his temper. Barely. “Come here,” he ordered.
Johnny shrugged. He sauntered over to the desk. “So you got it straightened out about the partnership agreement?” he drawled.
Before Murdoch could answer, Jonathan Randolph took the floor. “Do you consider your father an honorable man, Johnny?”
The bluntness of the question clearly stunned the younger man, and this time he was unable to hide the surprise. He stared at the attorney for a time, meeting the man’s gaze head on before turning his eyes to his brother. Scott was standing behind Murdoch’s chair, his face unreadable.
There was a sound to Johnny’s right; the subtle scraping of a cup against a saucer, and he turned. Aggie Conway was sitting in one of the blue, over-stuffed chairs, her back ramrod straight, but somehow looking quite relaxed. He could feel the woman looking at him; something in her eyes he couldn’t quite read. Chewing on his bottom lip, he dropped his head; remembering something Val had told him a long time ago: Only two things in the world that scare me, son. A decent woman and bein’ set afoot in the desert.
“John?” Randolph’s voice again; firmer, more insistent this time.
Johnny’s lips quirked into a brief smile, and he closed his eyes. Talk about bein’ between a rock and hard place, he thought. He inhaled, sucking in a lung full of air.
“Has he ever lied to you, brother?” Scott had moved across the room and was now standing slightly to Johnny’s left, facing him; his words coming whisper soft and intended for his brother’s ears and no-one else. “Has he ever broken his word, or done one thing to either of us since we’ve come home,” he was smiling now, “--beyond the yelling -- to intentionally hurt us?” When he saw it wasn’t enough, he pulled out the big guns. “Has he allowed one person to walk away who has made a comment about who you are; who your mother was?”
The brunet’s head came up. He stole a look at the Grandfather clock; the same clock that had gotten him in big trouble more times than he cared to think about. Less than three minutes had passed since his father had called him to the desk. “Time to let ‘er buck?” he asked.
“Past time,” Scott answered, patting the younger man’s shoulder.
Johnny turned his attention back to the attorney. “He don’t lie,” he said finally. That was as much of a concession as he would allow himself to make; although there was a part of him that wanted to say more.
Murdoch’s expression softened considerably. Three small words from his youngest boy and his heart had practically turned to mush. “The partnership contract stands, Johnny. There are, however, some other things to consider.”
Here it comes, the younger man thought. “‘About me not bein’ legal?”
Jonathan Randolph had taken a fountain pen out of his vest pocket. “This is a codicil to your father’s will, Johnny.” He lifted up a single sheet and held it out for the younger man’s inspection.
He felt like someone had kicked him in the gut, and he wasn’t quite sure why. For years, he had fantasized about killing his father; gut-shooting him, letting him die a slow death at his feet, and then sticking around just long enough to piss on his grave. Now, however, in spite of the long list of rules, the constant head-butting, and the even more constant urge to run; the thought of his father dying tore at his very soul. “You sick?” He didn’t wait for an answer -- was, in truth -- afraid of an answer. Turning, he glared at his brother. “You know about this?”
Scott was seriously questioning his decision to agree to become his brother’s guardian. For a heartbeat, anyway. He was about to answer when Murdoch rose up from behind the desk; relieved when his father came up to stand beside him.
“It’s business, son,” Murdoch said, reaching out to lay his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I haven’t changed my will since…” he frowned, mentally berating himself for his reluctance to deal with Maria’s disappearance, to face it as he should have, “…since before your mother left Lancer. It needs to be done.” He could see from Johnny’s face it wasn’t enough. “I’m not sick, John. I have no plans on getting sick.”
“Business?” the younger man echoed.
“Business I should have taken care of a long time ago; certainly when you and your brother returned.” Murdoch felt a sudden need to clear his throat. “That’s why -- well, it’s one of the reasons -- Aggie and Sam are here. They’re going to witness the codicil.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. His belly was doing a series of gut-wrenching flip flops. “Cipriano and Maria ain’t good enough?” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He didn’t even know why he had said them.
Jonathan Randolph answered the question. “Individuals who are named in a will as beneficiaries aren’t allowed to witness the document, Johnny.”
The words had a profound impact on the youth. He felt his cheeks coloring. Should’ve known better, he thought. He’d been at Lancer long enough to realize his father considered Cipriano, his wife and his sons -- as well as Maria and her children -- an integral part of the great hacienda’s family. Unable to say anything, he simply nodded.
Again, Randolph held up the pen. “I do have other clients,” he observed.
Finally, the tension that had permeated the room seemed to dissipate. Aggie Conway rose up from her chair and followed Sam and Murdoch back to the desk. She paused, just long enough to brush Johnny’s arm with her fingers; repeating the gesture with Scott before joining the other men.
Once the papers were signed, Scott did the honors, passing out the drinks. Ignoring the look from his father, he poured his younger brother a half-measure of tequila. “Make it last, brother,” he advised.
“Jonathan.” Murdoch shared a long look with the attorney, and then nodded at his younger son.
Randolph drained his glass. A small, rare smile tugged at the corners of his mouth; easing the lines and softening his features. “There is something you need to know, Johnny,” he began. He saluted the youth with his empty glass. “Because of your age,” the smile grew, “or lack thereof,” the man’s hazel eyes were actually twinkling, “it was necessary to name someone as your legal guardian in the event anything was to happen to your father; or to act in his stead if he is not here.”
Johnny grinned across at his brother, his lips barely moving as he spoke over the rim of his glass. “Better not be that son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered.
Scott said nothing. He was too busy downing his own drink.
“So who lucked out?” Johnny asked, feeling cocky. It had been a long time since he’d had a drink of anything more potent than Maria’s tea. Cip wouldn’t be bad, he reckoned. Then it hit him. Not Aggie!? Please, God! The woman had seen him naked!! He decided he’d chug the remainder of the tequila.
“Your brother,” the attorney answered.
Johnny choked on the drink; a series of coughs coming as the potent mescal reversed its downward flow and began an instant attack on his nasal passages. “What!?” he sputtered. “No fu…”
Scott’s right hand went immediately to his younger brother’s mouth, stopping the curse; his left gently massaging his sibling’s back. “Don’t worry, little brother. I promise not to be too hard on you.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer watched as his younger son paced the length of the Great Room. It had been a week since the codicil to his will had been signed, and Johnny’s disposition had been mercurial. Still housebound, the boy’s restlessness -- his need to be constantly moving -- was bad enough, but the highs and lows… “Johnny, sit down!” Murdoch’s tone was more severe than he intended. He relented, adding a “Please.”
Johnny sat. He plopped down into the chair in front of the desk that Scott usually occupied; the one on Murdoch’s right. Not that sitting improved his mood. Immediately, his leg lifted and he rested his right ankle atop his left knee; his fingers picking at the stitching on the boot’s vamp. “Scott’s drivin’ me crazy,” he muttered. He chose not to look at his father, preferring instead to study a worn spot he had discovered on his inner heel. Stubbornly, he began picking at the imperfection.
The older man sighed. “Scott has been busy with his chores,” he said finally. “He hasn’t had time to drive you crazy.” Unlike you, my son, who is a horse-hair away from driving me completely mad.
“Right,” the younger man scowled. “Hasn’t missed a fuckin’ night, readin’ to me from that fuckin’ book!”
Murdoch’s eyes closed, and he found himself silently counting to ten: first in his native tongue, next in Spanish, and then -- for good measure -- in English. It wasn’t working. “Your brother,” he began, stressing the word, “is simply attempting to be…” he considered his next words carefully, “… a big brother,” he finished helplessly.
“What he’s bein’,” Johnny argued, “is a pain in the ass!”
Unable to stop himself, Murdoch laughed; at the expression -- the pout -- on his son’s face as well as the young man’s words. “That, my boy, is very much the pot calling the kettle black!” He came forward, reaching for the brass tobacco tin and his pipe. He pried the lid loose, pinching out a measure of the finely flaked leaves, using his forefinger to press the sweet-smelling blend into the bowl of his pipe. There was a sound and the immediate odor of sulphur as he used his thumb nail to strike the wooden match. The smell faded to be replaced by the sweet aroma of dried apples as he worked to get the pipe started. It took several draws until he was satisfied; a blue haze rising around the man’s head as he leaned back, his expression softening. “Scott’s concerned about you, Johnny. He has the same worries I have, that something…”
Johnny’s fingers had stopped tearing at the worn leather on his heel and were now busily spinning the spiked rowel of his spur; a steady ching, ching coming as he spun the silver disc faster and faster. “Ain’t any of his fuckin’ business…” he interrupted. His head came up, and he glared hard at his father. “Yours, either.” He had quit playing with the spur; the fingers of his left hand going to the bandage that still bound his right arm.
Jaws clenched, Murdoch drew long and hard on his pipe; the sound cutting into the silence that had fallen between he and his son. “I’ve had my fill of your cursing, John,” he declared, scrutinizing the younger man with an unrelenting glare of his own; “and your foul mood.”
The brunet’s head dipped, the dark curls at his forehead effectively hiding his eyes. A smile touched his lips. Other than the empty threat to wash his mouth out, the Old Man hadn’t done much more than rag on him about the cussing; a small price to pay to keep his father constantly riled. “Whatever,” he muttered.
Murdoch was done. “Sam’s coming this afternoon to remove your stitches. You can wait for him in your room.”
Johnny remained seated. “Yeah. Well, he’d damned well better get rid of this fuckin’ bandage.”
The big Scot shoved back his chair, rising to his full six foot five. “I can assure you, John, nothing would please me more,” he said. He pointed to the doorway.
Taken aback by his father’s strange words, his suddenly quiet demeanor; Johnny levered himself up from the chair. Then, deciding he didn’t care, he left the room. Once in the hallway, he made a detour towards the back stairway and the rear door leading to the kitchen.
Murdoch watched as his son departed. Johnny had been difficult as a toddler; strong-willed and stubborn even as a two-year old. He sighed. The boy had been a master at not doing what he was told when he was told. Some things never change, he thought. But they will.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott had seen Sam’s carriage as soon as the small buggy passed through the Lancer arch. Knowing the physician was due, he had worked close to the house; keeping busy in the barn checking and repairing tack. It hadn’t been any great sacrifice. He loved working with his hands, loved the feel of saddle leather beneath his fingers. It had been a passion that had been nurtured from his youth; as a boy when his Grandfather had indulged his fascination with jumpers, reinforced later when he had enlisted in the cavalry.
He strode across the courtyard, his long legs carrying him swiftly to the hitching rail. He called out to the doctor; nodding his head in greeting as he reached out to tether Sam’s mare. The animal was a bay; a finely bred Morgan, gentle by nature, and more buggy horse than what Sam needed. Scott grinned up at the doctor, refraining from helping him down. The older man was getting touchy about his age and resented even the common courtesies Scott had often offered. “One of these days, Sam, I’m going to have to see just how well Zanzibar could do against her in a short sprint,” he teased.
Sam was brushing himself off. “Talk to your father first, Scott. I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to tell you just how foolish that would be!” He smiled. “It was a tidy wager, and I won,” he said proudly. “We won,” he corrected himself; patting the mare’s neck, a mixture of pride and affection lighting his pale eyes.
“Murdoch lost a bet?” Scott asked, feigning shock.
The physician laughed. “One of the very few he’s lost!” He followed the younger man to the front door, stepping across the threshold as the younger man stood back and allowed him to pass. “How’s Johnny?” he asked.
“Cantankerous,” came the answer. Murdoch extended his right hand. “He’s waiting for you upstairs.”
“In his room?” Sam asked, genuinely surprised.
“Not by choice,” the big man answered. He smiled across at his elder son. “I sent him upstairs; he decided he was going to the kitchen. Maria was baking bread. By the time I got there, he had already decided his bedroom was a much safer place.”
Scott laughed. He addressed Sam, sharing a knowing smile with the older man. “No one trespasses into Maria’s kitchen on bread-baking day,” he observed.
Sam nodded. “Except Johnny,” he said. “But then, we all know what they say about fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.” He started up the stairwell.
“I heard that.” Johnny was standing at the head of the stairs. He was in his stockinged feet; the white socks he was wearing a stark contrast to his dark pants. It was obvious from his tousled appearance he had been indulging in an early siesta; though not by choice. “You comin’ up, or what?”
The physician chafed at the young man’s tone. “I could turn around and go back into town,” he snapped. His right foot had been firmly planted on the first step, and he immediately withdrew it.
Johnny hated it when he found himself backed into a corner; especially when he had put himself in that position. He knew he needed to make peace with the doctor; worse, he was aware that his father would expect -- hell, would order him -- to apologize. It was a quandary for him: apologies, he felt, were a sign of weakness, something he equated with cowardliness, a trait Johnny Madrid despised. Still, he knew he had been out of line. “Sorry,” he managed.
Scott added the art of how to make a proper apology to the list of social amenities he would be sharing with his younger brother. He turned to Sam. “Do you need anything, Sam?” he asked.
Placated, the physician nodded his head. He began climbing the stairs. “You can fetch me some warm water from the bathroom when we get upstairs.”
Scott excused himself and moved ahead of the physician on the stairway. When he reached the top of the stairs, he headed for Johnny’s room to retrieve the porcelain wash basin that had been put back in his brother’s bedroom when he was recovering. It was a quick in and out; the sound of running water coming as the doctor and Murdoch entered Johnny’s room.
Johnny was sitting on the edge of his bed. He had already removed his shirt. Giving up to the inevitable, he watched as his father followed Sam into the room. Scott was next; the blue china basin in his hands.
Sam placed his medical kit on the bed next to Johnny’s left leg. Reaching out, he placed his hand on the younger man’s forehead. “No fever,” he said. “I need you to lean forward so I can get to those pins, Johnny.”
The brunet came forward; moving his head a bit as Sam leaned over his shoulder. He felt a tightening of the bandage as the physician tugged the first pin free; the same sensation come when the second pin was pulled out. No one spoke; both Scott and Murdoch simply watching as Sam unrolled the bandage.
Johnny’s first move when his right arm was freed was to flex his fingers, as he had done the last time the arm had been unbound; the muscles and tendons in his forearm contracting then relaxing. He stared at his arm for a long time, fingering the ridges left by the cloth binding; so intent on the perceived disfigurement he didn’t realize that Sam had moved to the opposite side of the bed and was now standing at his back.
Sam dipped a square of gauze into the basin of water Scott was holding. He wrung it out, just enough to get rid of the excess; and then began dampening the bandage covering Johnny’s stitches.
Murdoch had moved closer to Sam; and was watching the man’s tender ministrations. Finally, the physician lifted the pad away from the youth’s back.
“Well,” the physician breathed, clearly satisfied with his handiwork. “What do you think, Murdoch?”
The tall Scot was duly impressed. The stitches were still in place, and the wound was nicely healed. There would, the big man knew, be only a faint scar. His brow furrowed. “The stitches you made inside the cut,” he began. Johnny’s wound had been deep enough to require suturing well below the surface of the skin, and Murdoch had felt every one of the stitches.
“Catgut,” Sam interrupted. The term was a misnomer: the material was actually a tough, thin cord made from the treated and stretched intestines of sheep. “His body will absorb those stitches. These…” he gestured at the row of finely spaced sutures, “…need to come out.” He set to work at once.
Scott watched as the doctor used a small scalpel to expertly eliminate the series of knots before taking the tweezers and pulling the thin strands of silk free. Silently, he observed his younger brother; studying the younger man’s profile. Johnny was remarkably still, the expression on his face almost dream-like, as if he had transported himself to another place. Is that how he’s done it all these years, he wondered, all those times he was sick or hurt? Going to some secret place to escape the pain; the loneliness?
“All done,” Sam announced. He patted Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m going to put some more of Maria’s salve on this; and a small plaster, and then you can put that shirt back on.”
Johnny was roused back to the here and now. “No more bandage?” he asked quietly. He was flexing his fingers again.
“No,” Sam answered. Then, sensing the next question, he continued. “No riding yet, John,” he said; his tone severe. “You can leave the house; do some small chores around the barn, but no riding for at least another week. And that plaster will have to be changed every day until I see you again.” The physician knew he was being overly cautious, but Johnny was his most difficult and stubborn patient. The youth also never did anything in half-measure. Giving the boy permission to ride the last time had nearly turned into a tragedy, and the doctor had no intention of repeating the experience.
Both Murdoch and Scott sensed the impending storm. Scott put a restraining hand on his father’s arm before addressing his sibling; the words coming softly. “I’ll get your boots, brother. If we can get past Maria, perhaps you can get into the pantry long enough to snatch an apple for Barranca.”
Buttoning his shirt, Johnny looked up, a hint of a smile appearing before he gave a slight nod. He patted his belly. “Two apples,” he teased. “I’m kinda hungry.”
Scott laughed. “When aren’t you hungry, Johnny?” he joshed. True to his word, he went to the place where his brother’s boots were lined up beside the door leading to the hallway, quickly returning and handing them off.
The younger Lancer son wasted no time. He stomped into one boot, stood up, and pulled the second boot on as he crow-hopped towards the hallway. Scott simply shook his head and followed behind; prepared to catch his brother if the younger man happened to fall.
Sam was packing up his kit. He paused long enough to swish his hands in the basin of water Scott had left at the foot of the bed. “He does that well,” he observed, nodding at the now-empty doorway. Already, he could hear the brothers heading down the stairs.
Murdoch had moved to the window. He stood, his hands stuffed into his pockets; gazing out into the courtyard. It didn’t take long for his sons to appear; the young men involved in an animated conversation as they headed for the barn. “Too well,” he mused. He was smiling.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was standing in Barranca’s stall. He was raking the fingers of his right hand through the palomino’s mane, relishing the feel of the animal; even happier that his right arm was no longer pinned to his body. It had been too long. “Now what?”
Scott was leading his gelding into the passageway. He bridled the animal, leaving it ground-hitched as he began saddling up; smiling a bit as he remembered how Johnny had nagged him into giving the animal a fitting name. As a joke, he had simply christened the dark bay Cheval. When he had explained later what the word meant -- that it was French for horse -- Johnny, who was not amused, had taken a punch at him. He’d been laughing too hard to fight back at first, and then the battle had turned into a brawl; which Murdoch had promptly broken up.
He turned to face his brother. “That depends on how long it takes you to saddle Barranca,” he answered. “By now, Murdoch has Sam downstairs and in the kitchen for a cup of coffee and an early supper. If we leave the back way,” he nodded at the seldom used rear door, “we can be half way up to the stock pond and no one will be any the wiser.”
Johnny was grabbing Barranca’s saddle blanket. “Halfway, hell!” he grinned, his eyes lighting. “We can…”
“We’re not going to race, Johnny,” Scott interrupted. “If you even attempt to do your usual hell-for-leather stunt,” he tapped the lariat hanging from the latigo straps on his saddle with a gloved finger, “I’ll put you on the ground.”
The brunet frowned. “Why you doin’ this?” he asked.
“Big brother prerogative,” the blond answered. The smile came then, lighting the young man’s eyes; the Lancer blue more evident. “One of the benefits of being your guardian. If Murdoch isn’t here, I can make decisions regarding you in his absence.” He shrugged. “Murdoch’s not here.”
Johnny opened the gate to Barranca’s stall and led the saddled animal into the corridor. “Don’t suppose you could decide I need a trip to Green River?” he asked hopefully. After more than two weeks on the mend, he had an itch that was going to require some pretty tender scratching.
Scott handed Cheval’s reins to his sibling, knowing full well what the youth was thinking. “Don’t push, little brother,” he cautioned. Heading down the passageway, he went to the large double doors at the rear of the barn, putting his shoulder against the broad planks as he pushed the right side door open. Above him, the heavy rollers squealed in protest.
Johnny held on to both horses as the animals tossed their heads nervously at the screech of metal against metal. “We’re gonna have to grease them things, brother, we ever plan on sneakin’ outta here at night,” he observed; thinking aloud.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They had slowed their horses to a walk as they entered the wide arroyo leading to small spring fed waterfall that was the origin of Cedar Creek. It was one of the Scott’s favorite places on Lancer, discovered when Johnny had been recovering from Pardee’s bullet.
Crystal clear water spilled across the face of the rocky ledge; the cliff a geological anomaly created in the upheaval following the Pleistocene period, when the glacial ice was withdrawing. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the otherwise pastoral landscape, bringing with it the water that had been trapped within the earth; and the water flowed year round.
This year, the land had been blessed with the coming of an early spring, the palo verde, the cottonwoods and the aspens just beginning to leaf; the sun streaming through the branches to create patterns of sunlight and shade in the shallows where the creek widened out to tumble ankle-deep across water polished rocks.
Scott dismounted and led Cheval to the edge of the stream; ducking under the gelding’s neck and positioning himself to the right of his horse. Johnny noted the move and immediately understood. He dismounted from Barranca, dropping down lightly and remaining at the palomino’s left. The brothers stood together, shoulder to shoulder, protected on both sides by their mounts. “You learn this in the army?” he asked.
The blond had taken off his hat. He was working the Stetson around his bent elbow; using his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from the inner head band. “Cavalry,” he said. He grinned across at his brother. “We considered ourselves elitist,” he explained, still smiling. “The cavalry rode; the army marched. On occasion, of course, to rest our horses, we’d walk, but not if we could avoid it.” When he saw the look on his brother’s face, he became more serious. “I imagine you had your share of self-imposed rules, Johnny. To never make a larger target than necessary, to keep your animal between you and the enemy; to avoid the ridge line in favor of more sheltered terrain.”
Johnny had hunkered down beside the water. He picked up flat rock, silver dollar sized, hefting it against his palm a bit before tossing it with a quick sideways flick of his wrist. The rock skipped across the water five times before sinking to the bottom. “Yeah,” he breathed. “All that, and never let a man call you out with the sun in your face.”
Scott sensed something more than regret in his younger brother’s voice; the tinge of sadness the youth rarely revealed to anyone. Going down on his haunches, the blond took off his right glove, palming up a mouthful of the clear water and drinking deeply. “There’s a cabin up ahead of us,” he said, “just around that first bend.”
Another rock skipped across the surface of the creek. “Yeah?” Johnny’s eyes were hidden by his hat. “That old mountain man Murdoch’s got hid out?” A smile played at the corner of his mouth. Sickness and work and kept him from coming up this far in the high country, but he had heard about the cabin and its lone tenant from the hands.
“Modoc Charlie,” Scott answered, standing up. He dried his palm on his pant leg, a small streak of water appearing on the fabric, the cloth clinging to his thigh. Shading his eyes, he checked the position of the sun. Although he would probably regret it later, he was going to risk missing supper, in spite of Murdoch’s rule about being on time for meals. “Ready?” he asked.
Johnny stood up. “We headin’ back?” he asked.
Scott pulled himself aboard the gelding. “Nope,” he answered. He moved out, knowing his brother would follow.
They rounded the bend, Scott leading the way into the shallows. There was no conversation between the brothers, both of them taking in the sounds around them. It was comforting, somehow; the unhurried but steady click-click of shod hooves against the water eroded stones and the lazy creak of leather so different from the noise made when they were working the cattle. The woods were alive as well; with the constant trill and twittering of the diverse community of native songbirds, broken only by the fluttering of wings as a covey of quail took flight.
The first thing Johnny noticed when they entered the clearing was the obvious care that had been taken to not only eliminate the scrub that had once surrounded the small log cabin, but to keep any additional growth at bay. The building itself was backed up against a high outcropping of rock; snug enough -- Johnny realized -- that the structure could obscure an entrance to a small cave. Somehow, the place was familiar to him, and he shook the thought away: he’d hidden out in a cabin like this once, a place Val had taken him to recover from a wound…
Johnny dismounted. He stood, staring expectantly up at his brother. “Looks empty,” he said, nodding towards the cabin’s front door. To the right of the sturdy portal, he saw the stretched furry hide of a large grey wolf; head still intact, its hair perfectly in place as if it had been groomed.
Scott shoved back his hat. “I’ve made a point to come up here at different times during the day,” he said. “It always look empty.” He remained mounted, his hands crossed atop the saddle horn, well away from his pistol.
The brunet shrugged. “So let’s take a look inside,” he suggested. He ground-hitched Barranca and headed for the two wide steps leading up to the small front porch.
“No,” Scott said. When he saw his brother was ignoring him, he tried again. “This is Modoc Charlie’s home, Johnny. It’s not proper to go in without being invited.”
Johnny was already on the porch. He shook his head, his shoulders lifting. And then he turned from the waist to look back at his sibling. “His home; our land,” he countered.
“It’s still not the mannerly thing to do, brother,” Scott chided.
“That in your fuckin’ book, too?” Johnny shot back over his shoulder, clearly annoyed.
“You should listen to your brother, boy.” The voice came to them out of the cool darkness beside the cabin to their right; at the far end of the porch, the sound made more ominous by the familiar click of the hammer of a rifle being cocked. Modoc Charlie stepped out from his hiding place; the barrel of a Sharps rifle in line with Johnny’s chest. Only the man’s head and shoulders were clearly visible, the rest of his body hidden by the two strategically stacked wooden kegs.
Johnny exhaled, his lips forming a small ‘o’. He’d never heard the man.
Scott’s hands were still resting across the saddle horn, the gloved fingers interlaced and in full sight. “Mr. …”
“Bellingham,” the older man finished. He still had not lowered the rifle. “You’re Murdoch’s boys,” he observed.
“Yes, sir,” Scott said. “I’m Scott, and this is…”
“Juanito.” The older man’s eyes flickered with recognition; a sudden frown coming that just as quickly disappeared. There was a soft click as the he eased the hammer of the Sharps back into place. Resting the long barrel across his crooked right arm, he stepped out into the open.
Bellingham was small in stature; his build similar to Johnny’s and just as wiry. He was old, at that stage in life where it was impossible to guess his true age; his shoulder-length hair almost pure white against the fringed buckskin shirt he was wearing. The short beard and carefully trimmed mustache that adorned his face were the same color as his hair. His pants were buckskin, like his shirt; intricately beaded down the outer seams, reminiscent of Johnny’s conchos, only brightly colored. He was wearing moccasins; and he was hatless. His eyes were a startling shade of blue; almost the color of a summer sky.
“So, you gonna invite us in?” Johnny was still standing on the porch. He nodded towards the door; pointedly ignoring the frown on his brother’s face.
The mountain man’s eyes narrowed. His gaze shifted to the elder Lancer son. “I’ve seen you here before,” he announced.
“Yes, sir,” Scott nodded. “Several times. I was aware I was being observed, but I felt if you wanted company you would have made yourself known.”
Bellingham actually smiled. “Anyone ever tell that one,” he nodded towards Johnny without looking at him, “curiosity killed the cat?”
“More times than I can count,” Scott answered truthfully. “May I?” He met Bellingham’s steady scrutiny dead on, gesturing towards the ground with his left hand.
“You may,” Bellingham acknowledged. He watched as the blond dismounted.
Johnny was getting impatient with all the damned politeness. “Kinda risky, ain’t it?” he asked. He pointed to Bellingham’s rifle. “Bracin’ two men with a single shot carbine?”
Bellingham propped the rifle up beside the two barrels. “I planned on lining the two of you up front to back,” he retorted. “One shot is all it would take.” A sly grin creased the old man’s face, as he raised his right hand, his fingers knotted into a tight fist. “This close, it would have put a hole in you this big coming out,” he observed. His hand dropped back to his side. “Besides, I always have backup.” With that declaration, he pursed his lips and whistled; loud enough that Barranca shied and stepped back to collide with Scott.
But it wasn’t just the whistle that had spooked the palomino. The wind had shifted slightly; and Scott’s horse had picked up the same scent as its companion.
Johnny watched in awe as the large wolf snaked out from beside the cabin to take its place at Bellingham’s right side. “Madre de Dios! (Mother of God!)” he breathed, unable to hide his surprise.
Bellingham took hold of his rifle and -- using it as a staff -- stepped up onto the porch, the wolf coming perfectly to heel. “That’s his mother hanging beside the door,” he announced. “She was old; left behind by the pack. I didn’t know she had a cub until I’d shot her.” He shook his head. “Near empty teats. Neither one of them would have made it through the winter.”
Scott had joined his brother on the porch. “You’re sure we wouldn’t be intruding?” he asked. Like Johnny, his eyes were locked on Bellingham’s companion. The wolf was returning their vigilant stares; amber eyes burning, mouth open and panting.
The older man said nothing. He reached out, opening his door; standing back to allow the two younger men to pass.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Bellingham invited them to stay for supper. He declined any offer of help, other than to send Johnny outside for a pail of water to brew a fresh pot of chicory. The wolf had padded after Johnny without any urging, and when Scott went to the door to observe his brother, he saw the youth working his usual magic. The big grey animal was sitting on its haunches, eye-level with the similarly positioned Johnny, not only tolerating having its ears scratched, but seeming to relish the contact.
It hadn’t escaped the mountain man’s notice. He was standing beside Scott. “The boy’s got the touch,” he observed, his tone milder than when he had spoken with Johnny.
“You should see him with horses,” Scott said, the pride evident. He turned to face the older man. “Now, with the cattle…” The smile reached his eyes and warmed them.
“Stupid beasts,” Bellingham acknowledged. “Cows stampede, they’ll run over a man like he’s nothing but a piece of dead wood. Even wild horses will try to avoid a man on the ground.” He moved back to the hearth, adjusting the piece of meat on the spit above the fire.
Scott’s eyes had been busy from the moment they had entered Bellingham’s cabin. The interior was nothing like the rough-hewn exterior. It was clearly a man’s domain; the furnishings relatively sparse but constructed with care. Only one piece of furniture in the room was not man-made. A Boston rocker sat beside the fireplace; a hanging lantern suspended from the ceiling directly above the chair, a reflective shade crowning the spotless glass chimney. Beside the table was a neat stack of books and periodicals; the latter fairly current. There was also a leather-bound copy of The Last of the Mohicans; one Scott immediately recognized as belonging to Murdoch.
The fact Bellingham was a man who was clearly well educated tugged at the Bostonian’s sensibilities. Everything he had read about men of similar ilk suggested they were, for the most part, a breed of rough individuals who placed little value on formal education; preferring to hone their skills as trappers and hunters. There was also something about the man’s slight accent. “Mr. Bellingham,” he began. He was immediately cut off.
“Jericho, New York,” Bellingham said. He had moved back to the hearth and was basting the meat. “Came west to hunt and trap. When Jedediah Smith left St. Louis in ’31 with his supply train heading for California, I hired on to make the trip with him.” The man was still for a long moment. “We had a parting of the ways; heard later the Comanche had killed him. I kept moving west, settled here.”
Johnny was standing in the doorway, the sun at his back; more a dark silhouette than a person with distinguishable and readable features. The pail of water was in his left hand; the wolf standing at his right knee. “You were here before the Old Man?” he asked.
Bellingham was still at the hearth. He picked up the poker, using it to pull a cast iron pot that was suspended over the coals forward; tipping the lid a bit. “Tómas Ignacio Ortiz de Velarde,” he said, the words coming with a perfection that was a clear indication the mountain man was fluent in Spanish. “Land rich and money poor.” The lid clattered back into place. When he turned to face the younger men, he was smiling. “de Velarde provided this cabin,” he gestured ambiguously with his hand; “I kept the wolves and mountain lions away from his stock, did some trapping for pelts.
“Kept an eye out for trespassers, too,” he grinned; the smile failing to reach his eyes. Then, to Johnny, “Bring me the water.”
The younger man complied, setting the pail on the stone hearth; but not before he exchanged a long look with his brother. Scott was sitting at the small table, his long fingers tracing the intricate patterns in the highly varnished pine; his face showing his amusement at the old man’s way of diverting Johnny’s question. “So you were here before our father,” he surmised. He lifted his head, looking across the room to where his brother and the mountain man were standing; noticing how similar their postures were. Wary; untrusting. “You said de Velarde was land rich and money poor. And Murdoch?”
Bellingham was removing the meat from the spit. He spoke to Johnny before answering the other. “There’s a platter on those shelves,” he indicated the place with a single nod of his head, “and plates; cutlery. Make yourself useful.” Immediately, he turned his attention to the elder Lancer brother. “Your father had money, but no land.”
Scott smiled across at his brother; his face betraying nothing, although -- inwardly -- he was surprised. Not a year off the boat from Inverness, he remembered his father saying that first day. Getting up, he crossed to where Johnny was fumbling around for the dishes. Taking a stack of plates, he went back to the table and began setting them out; as if it was something he did every day.
Johnny watched his brother; marveling at his sibling’s quiet control. A hundred questions were running through his own mind, but he knew that Scott would be better at ferreting out the truth. It was just going to take a hell of a lot longer than it would have taken Johnny Madrid.
The blond waited. He was good at waiting; a hard learned lesson from his days in Libby.
Bellingham carried the meat to the table; aware that Johnny was behind him toting the pot of boiled potatoes. “Yes, I was here when your father came from San Francisco. He’d heard about de Velarde, that the man was squandering his inheritance; that he was in trouble. Murdoch put himself in the right place and the right time.” He began to carve the roast. “Bought everything that was left; more than seventy percent of the original land grant; the hacienda, the livestock.” Looking up, he stared directly at Scott; gazing deeply into the younger man’s eyes. “And then he sailed back to Boston to marry your mother and bring her here. You know the rest.”
Scott laughed, the sound laced with cynicism. Bellingham had given him more information in the last few minutes than had ever been volunteered by his father. “And thus began his search for his manifest destiny,” he breathed. “What you said about my father coming here from San Francisco…”
The mountain man was passing out slices of roast; leaving the young men to serve their own potatoes. “Do you know nothing of the man!?” he suddenly asked.
“Not as fuckin’ much as you seem to know,” came the crude answer. Johnny picked up the entire slice of meat with his fork and took a bite; frowning when he realized the roast lacked any real seasoning. He also realized that what he was eating was not wild game, but a pretty decent piece of beef. “You got any salt?”
Bellingham nodded his head; but he remained seated, choosing to point at the same set of shelves where Johnny had found the dishes. Scott was the one that got up and fetched the jar of large-grained salt and brought it back to the table. When the blond reseated himself, he took a long drink from his mug before speaking. “San Francisco,” he persisted. He had assumed his parents had come west by wagon.
The mountain man leaned back in his chair. He was playing a game he thoroughly enjoyed, although rarely had the opportunity to play. It was a contest he wanted, for his own reasons, desperately to win. “The ships in the Great Room,” he began; “all those boats…” he smiled when he said the word, remembering the time Murdoch had soundly chided him for his audacity at calling the vessels by such a lowly name. “Why do you think he has them; the grand models of those three clippers?”
Johnny was chewing his piece of meat, a thoughtful look on his face. “Figured he wanted a reminder of how he got here from Scotland,” he speculated, shrugging. That much, at least, he knew about his Old Man; that he’d been born in a foreign land, across the great sea Scott had shown him on the globe in Murdoch’s study. He didn’t know what had amazed him most; all that damned water or Scott’s explanation the sun was really a star, and the Earth moved around it.
Bellingham laughed. “He captained those ships, boy!” he roared, the laughter bringing tears when he saw the expression on both young men’s faces. “In the days before he came here; when the sea, and not Lancer, was his mistress!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch looked up from his desk; watching as his elder son entered the room. He chose not to speak until Scott had poured himself a drink. “Did your brother enjoy his ride?” he asked; his voice deceptively soft. He’d heard both boys come in; just as he had heard Johnny go up the stairs to his room.
Scott hid the smile, taking a sip from the tumbler before answering. “Are you angry?” He picked up the decanter of scotch and made his way to where his father was sitting.
The big Scot’s elbows were on the desk; his hands together prayerfully in front of his nose, forefingers tapping against his upper lip. “That depends,” he answered, watching as Scott topped off his Taliskers. “Maria, however, will be taking you to task for failing to tell her you and your brother would not be here for dinner.” He promptly changed the subject. “How’s his back?”
The blond eased into the chair at the front of the desk; the one on his father’s right. “He held Barranca to a canter,” he answered. Looking up, he smiled. “I told him I’d rope him out of the saddle if he even looked like he was going to run.
“His back is fine. Sam was just being…”
Murdoch cut in. “Overly cautious,” he said. “Are you going to tell me now that you have a medical degree, too?”
Scott stopped mid drink; not quite sure if his father was joking or being sarcastic. Sarcastic, he decided. “You saw Johnny’s back when Sam removed the sutures. Between Sam’s stitching and Maria’s salve, Johnny’s healed quite well.” He took a long drink before continuing. “You also saw my brother’s face when Sam told him he couldn’t ride for another week, Murdoch. Taking him out with Barranca seemed preferable to the alternative.”
The older man was nodding his head. “Having him sneak off in the middle of the night and riding out of here in the dark.”
The blond stretched, his head bobbing up and down a single time. “The rollers on the back door to the barn,” he said. “Johnny’s going to tell you they need greasing.”
Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched. “And?”
“He happened to mention -- if we were ever to sneak out at night -- it would be better if they didn’t make quite so much noise.” The younger man risked a quick smile, relieved when his father smiled back.
“Why is so difficult for him to just simply mind the rules?” The big Scot took a long drink; emptying his glass. He decided not to pour another.
“What would be the fun in that?” Scott chose to nurse his drink; thinking of the number of times Johnny had asked him the same question. Usually when he was about to do something Murdoch had expressly forbidden.
“We can’t continue to indulge him, Scott. He’s going to have to learn, once and for all, there are rules and he has to abide by them.” Stiff, Murdoch rose up from his chair. Hands clasped behind his back, he began to pace.
“Indulge; placate.” Scott decided to risk it; aware he was soon going to make his father angrier. “I took Johnny for a ride because I wanted to prevent another shouting match between the two of you.” He was toying with his glass; rotating it back and forth between his palms. “I realize it was a diversionary tactic, but it worked. As for the rules…” What the Hell, he thought, hung for a lamb, hung for a sheep. “How many times have you told him you’re not going tolerate his open defiance and his cursing, Murdoch?” He shot a covert look at his father. “He only behaves that way, uses that language, because he knows it irritates you.” There was a sound as he inhaled; the soft whisper of air being sucked into his lungs.
Murdoch’s face darkened as he turned to face his elder son; a frown drawing harsh lines at the corners of his mouth. “He isn’t the only one who says or does things to irritate me, Scott,” he reprimanded. “Where did you go?”
Scott emptied his glass; welcoming the bite of the liquor. “When did you first go to sea?” he tossed back.
The question, the cold insolence in his son’s voice, surprised the older man; and it showed in the sudden grimace as his frown deepened. Modoc Charlie’s, he thought. “When I was fourteen,” he answered sharply; moving back to his chair. It was clear from his tone the matter was not open for discussion.
The blond was shaking his head. “You do know, Murdoch, it’s not a pleasant thing for Johnny and I to find out a veritable hermit knows more about our father than we know; that Mr. Bellingham is apparently privy to information you are unwilling to share with your own sons.”
Murdoch determined he was not going to be drawn into a conversation that would inevitably go to a place he was not willing to go. He also resented his son’s accusatory tone. “I went to sea a boy,” he thumped a rigid forefinger against the top of his desk, “and this is where I became a man.”
Scott turned to look at his father, his eyes narrowing. In his mind, he was slowly cataloguing what he actually knew about his sire, attempting to construct a timeline of events. He gestured towards the large model ship that stood on the table behind the couch, moving his hand to point to the other, smaller replicas on the bookshelves; the elegant and trim three-masters with their fore and aft sails. “Mr. Bellingham said you commanded those vessels,” he persevered. “That’s hardly the work of a boy.”
There was a noise as Murdoch swiveled half-way around in his chair and leaned back; stretching his legs. Mentally, he made a note to visit the mountain man, and soon. “I would recommend, Scott, that you and your brother refrain from making any more visits to Mr. Bellingham’s cabin,” the words coming with an all too familiar terseness.
End of discussion, Scott thought. “Is that an order, sir?” he asked.
Murdoch swept his son with a look that was normally reserved for his youngest boy. “It was a request, Scott. However, it is one I expect you -- and your brother -- to adhere to.” With that, he turned his back on the younger man; staring out into the darkness beyond the arched window.
Scott levered himself up from his chair; recognizing he had just been dismissed. He resisted the urge to snap to attention and salute his father’s stone faced reflection; and left the room without bidding his father good night.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
As soon as he heard the knock at his door, Johnny reached up to snuff out the bedside lantern. He was too late. Murdoch, unlike Teresa, always knocked. What he didn’t do was wait to be invited in.
The tall Scot opened the door to be greeted by his son attempting to sit up in bed; his right hand about to lift the glass globe on the lamp. He watched as the youth resignedly leaned back against his pillows. Crossing the room, he reached out, placing the back of his hand against the younger man’s forehead; suppressing a smile as Johnny rolled his eyes. “No fever,” he announced. He dropped down into the bedside chair. “Did you enjoy your ride?” he asked.
Johnny raised his head slightly, wondering what the Hell the Old Man was actually asking him; and why. “Saw Modoc Charlie’s cabin,” he answered, studying the man’s face. “He asked us to stay to supper. We had beef. Lancer beef.”
Murdoch face softened and he let the smile come. It was the most conversation he’d had with his son without the air turning blue with curses. “I didn’t ask where you’d been, son. I asked if you enjoyed your ride.”
The youth was fidgeting; the fingers of his left hand plucking loose threads from the edge of his quilt. “It was fine,” he shrugged. “You hear what I said about eatin’ Lancer beef?”
“Yes,” the older man answered. He inhaled. “It’s spring, Johnny,” he continued. “Most of the game animals are in rut; which makes the meat less desirable. And what you were eating was probably veal.” It was not unusual for Charlie Bellingham to slaughter a lamed calf; or an animal that had been abandoned by its mother.
“So you got no problem with that old son-of-a-bitch takin’ our beef?” Johnny had pulled himself up into a sitting position and had drawn his knees up to his chest. It wasn’t the question he wanted to ask, but he waited for the answer.
“Charlie provides a service to Lancer, and has for years;” Murdoch began, “in exchange for that, he is allowed to take an occasional beef, and to live in that cabin. He’s also a good friend.”
Johnny’s chin was resting on his right knee and he was staring straight ahead. “He got somethin’ on you, Old Man?” the youth drawled. “He keepin’ some of your fuckin’ secrets for ya?”
Murdoch’s jaws tightened and he came forward in the chair. “I’ll be in first thing in the morning to change that bandage.” He stood up; facing his son. “I told your brother there will be no more visits to Mr. Bellingham’s cabin. He’s an old man and he’s entitled to his privacy; and I’m going to assure that he has it.” He headed for the hallway.
Johnny wasn’t about to let his Old Man have the final word. “Scott can change the fuckin’ bandage!” Raising his voice, he spoke again; this time to the solidly shut door his father had just closed on his way out of the room. There was a dull thunk as his pillow slammed against the heavy portal. “And I’ll see that old man up at Cedar Creek any damned time I feel like it!”
He collapsed back against his one remaining pillow, arms above his head; his fingers laced together. His mind was working overtime, a multitude of thoughts tumbling from the dark closets in his head where he had buried all the pain from his childhood; all the confusing secrets and lies too many people had told him throughout the years.
It was the secrets that bothered him the most. The ones his mother had; and now his father’s.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch had risen early; before the sun began its slow, pink crawl across the eastern horizon. The big hacienda was still asleep. Even Maria was not awake; the usual early morning aromas absent and the kitchen abnormally quiet.
He had planned a busy day. Grateful now that he had added the two indoor water closets just weeks after his sons’ arrival, he headed toward the main bath at the end of the hallway. In his stockinged feet, he moved quietly across the carpeted flooring, stopping briefly at Scott’s door before moving on; doing the same at Johnny’s. And then, content his boys were still sleeping, he continued his trek.
Taking his time, the big Scot began preparing for his morning shave. Toweling around his neck, he stood at the washbasin, studying his reflection in the diamond dust mirror; smiling a bit as he realized the face that stared back at him was the countenance of his own father as he remembered him, gray-haired and marked by time. Getting old, he supposed, was preferable to the alternative.
He reached out, turning on the left hand faucet; grimacing as the pipes rattled a bit before the water came. Maria, he knew, had laid a slow-burning fire the night before, in the boiler room off the kitchen pantry. The complexities of modern plumbing had annoyed the housekeeper at first, but the convenience of having hot water on tap had convinced the woman that some change to the household she managed could be a good thing.
Steam rolled up from the sink, and Murdoch laid a second square of toweling in the water; his fingers stinging as he wrung out the cloth and applied it to his cheeks. Then, taking down his shaving mug, he allowed just a measure of water to engulf the fresh cake of Williams Shaving Soap. Turning off the water, he began working his shaving brush against the circle of white; a thick lather forming. Meticulously, he worked the lather into the day-old growth of whiskers that were prominent on his chin, spreading the froth of soap to both cheeks.
He had just scraped the first traces of hair from his left cheek when he heard them. Johnny first; the young man’s voice shattering the early morning peace.
“Goddammit, Scott! Just change the fuckin’ bandage!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott was standing beside his younger brother’s bed; hands on his hips as he watched his sibling in the process of throwing a major temper tantrum. Dealing with his brother before breakfast was never a pleasant experience. Johnny needed at least two cups of coffee before his mood improved to the point where he was even marginally civil; something the family had learned early on. This morning, there wasn’t even the aroma of coffee to placate the youth’s bad humor.
The blond reached out, laying his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I’ll be more than happy to change your bandage, brother; but you need to stop fidgeting and give me some time to get some water to work it loose.”
Johnny was shaking his head. Clad only in the bottom half of his summer underwear and still in his stockinged feet, he had already worked up a sweat. “Just pull the goddamned thing off!” He reached back, angry when -- no matter how he tried -- he couldn’t do the job himself. “This is fuckin’ bullshit…!”
Both young men jumped as the door swung wide open and Murdoch Lancer strode across the threshold. Bulling his way past his elder son, the tall Scot -- half shaven and naked from the waist up except for the towel around his neck -- reached out to yank Johnny up from the bed. Fingers closing around the nape of the boy’s neck, he pulled his son to him; making an abrupt about face as he dragged the younger man back to the door and into the hallway.
Scott quickly followed in his father’s wake, aware that Johnny was now in a headlock beneath Murdoch’s left arm, the younger man’s fists thumping against his father’s broad back and chest. Not sure of what was about to happen, the blond attempted to catch up, only to know the frustration of his father and brother disappearing into the bathroom; and the door being slammed shut. Questioning the wisdom of what he was about to do, Scott threw caution to the wind and charged forward. He opened the door just as Murdoch was fishing the still wet bar of shaving soap from the mug.
Johnny made the mistake of opening his mouth. “Goddamnit, you son-of-a-bitch!” He was struggling hard against the long arm that was now wrapped around his upper torso; effectively pinning his arms against his body. “You better fuckin’…!”
The rest of the sentence died unspoken amid a series of sputters and gagging coughs as Johnny found his mouth filled with the vile-tasting round of soap. Murdoch was holding his son firmly against the sink, Johnny’s head level with the faucets; the older man intent on the task at hand. When Murdoch finally relaxed his grip and dropped the soap, Johnny remained where he was; a sudden quiet coming as -- both hands wrapped around the rim of the basin -- he leaned heavily against the sink and began to spit copiously.
Scott stood at the threshold; mouth agape as Johnny pulled himself erect. He could see his brother’s reflection in the mirror; a generous amount of suds still ringing his mouth, the foam reminding Scott of a rabid dog he had once seen. Only the dog hadn’t looked quite so subdued.
Murdoch pulled the towel from around his neck and thrust it at his younger son. He gave a single, curt nod; indicating the oak-lidded commode. “Sit.”
Surprisingly, Johnny did as he was told. He sat, and without looking up, mopped his face with the toweling; sticking his tongue out and scrubbing it with the cloth in a futile attempt to wipe away the foul taste. Already, his throat was burning; the fire crawling into his inner ears. More lather was spattered against his naked chest; and he swiped at the suds.
Murdoch was cleaning out the sink; intent on finishing his shave. If he was fazed by what had just occurred, it didn’t show. Looking up, he caught a glimpse of his elder son in the mirror. Scott was lounging against the wall, arms folded across his chest, his expression unreadable. “I would suggest, son,” he said, “that you go downstairs and have Maria see to breakfast.”
Scott shoved himself away from the wall. Hesitating, his gaze shifted from his father’s reflection to his younger brother; who was still trying to summon enough spit to clean his tongue. “Johnny’s bandage,” he said softly, “I was…”
“I’ll attend to your brother, Scott,” Murdoch interrupted. Already, he was scrubbing the dried lather from his face.
Johnny glared up at his father. “I want Scott to…”
Again, the big man asserted his authority; this time cutting off his younger son. “It’s not a matter of what you want, John,” he declared. Then, turning his gaze to his eldest, he nodded towards the door. “Go,” he ordered. Reluctantly, Scott did as he was told.
Johnny was sitting stock still on the commode. The towel his father had given him was draped across his shoulders, and he had just bunched it up around his ears like a muffler put on in the dead of winter for protection against the fierce cold. In spite of the steam rising up from the sink, the temperature in the room was decidedly frigid. Without looking up, he addressed his father. “We done here?” he muttered. He spat again and swiped the back of his hand across his mouth; and when that failed to completely erase the evidence of his latest transgression, wiped the edge of the towel across his lips. It didn’t help.
Murdoch turned off the spigot. Pulling a fresh towel from the cabinet below the sink, he again covered his shoulders. “No, John, we are not,” he answered. He picked up his straight razor; frowning at the dried lather caked on the blade, the residual suds from his interrupted shave. He swished the razor in the steaming water; shaking the excess free before drying the cutting edge against his towel and testing the sharpness with his thumb. Turning slightly, he methodically began to hone the blade against the wide leather strop that hung beside the mirror; a steady rhythm in the deliberate up and down motion.
Johnny was struggling to stay still; to find some comfortable position atop the hard toilet seat; an impossible chore for someone who was unaccustomed to being nailed down to one place; especially when it was a place not of his choosing. It didn’t help that his Old Man was still working the razor against the leather strop; the swish-swish magnified by the poor acoustics in a room that had only one window, a narrow rectangle between the sink and the gravity tank above the toilet. His right leg began to dance.
The Lancer patriarch was purposely taking his time, prolonging a chore he normally dispatched with his usual efficiency; knowing that it was pure agony for his son to remain confined within such a relatively small space. When he finally finished his shave, he patted his skin dry and then applied a generous amount of after shave; the air filling with the subtle aroma of apple and cloves. Then, with his customary calm and sense of order, he put things right, rinsing out his shaving mug and drying it before placing it dead center on the shelf above the sink. He cleaned every drop of water from his straight razor as well; shining the blade before snapping it shut and placing the ivory-handled blade to the right of the mug. He then wiped out the sink and polished the faucets. “I’ll tend to that bandage now,” he announced finally.
There was a sudden quiet in the room as Johnny’s right foot stilled; but the turmoil was still there, just beneath the surface. “Leave it,” he groused. “It’s fine.” His eyes remained locked on the tiled floor.
Murdoch’s jaws tightened. He said nothing, choosing to retrieve the small medical kit from beneath the sink. Methodically, he began laying out the supplies he would need.
Covertly, Johnny watched as his father laid out a jar of ointment, a narrow swatch of gauze and a strip of adhesive. It struck him, how everything his father did had a certain cadence to it; a discipline that never seemed to vary from task to task. He had seen it countless times before; in everything from the precise way Murdoch recorded numbers in the ledgers, to the way he worked in the forge. And it drove him crazy. The urge to run, to flee, tugged at him with its usual ferocity, and he debated taking the chance.
“You need to turn around, son,” Murdoch said; gesturing towards the bathtub with his free hand.
Johnny gauged the distance between where he was sitting and the door. The problem, he realized, was that his father was standing between him and the portal. Resigned, he shifted slightly, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his bare knees and burying his face in his hands. He winced slightly as Murdoch moistened the old bandage and gently pried it free.
Pleased with what he was seeing, Murdoch made short work of his chore; his movements sure but tender as he carefully applied the ointment. Sam had done an outstanding piece of surgery, and there would be -- he knew -- only a slight scar that would, due to Johnny’s age, fade with time. He applied the plaster, patting it in place. “All done,” he said.
The younger man stood up. “Can I go now?” he asked as he turned around. He was still wondering why his father hadn’t blistered his ears; why there hadn’t been the usual lecture.
Murdoch simply nodded. He reached out, he cupped the boy’s chin, using his thumb to scrub away a flake of drying soap; holding on as he addressed the youth. “I’m going back to my room and finish dressing,” he declared. “I expect you to be dressed and at the table by the time I get downstairs.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Shirt tails tucked in and buttons fastened, Johnny slid into the chair across from Scott; saying nothing as his elder brother shoved a mug of coffee in his direction. He took a tentative sip of the hot brew; grimacing as he still tasted soap, swishing the java around in his mouth before finally swallowing. For good measure, he scraped his tongue with his teeth; spitting the gunk into his napkin.
“He warned you, Johnny; more times than I care to count.” Scott stared across the top of his cup, seeing the frown; the words coming softly but with a measure of censure.
The brunet’s head snapped up. “Yeah. Well, it ain’t happenin’ again.”
Teresa had just taken the seat at Scott’s right. “What isn’t happening again?” she asked. She began buttering a small triangle of toast; her head tilted slightly as she stared at her brother.
Scott answered before Johnny had a chance to reply. “Nothing that concerns you, Teresa,” he admonished. It was clear from his tone that the matter was not open to discussion.
The girl’s mouth turned down in a quick frown. There were times when Scott had an annoying tendency to sound just like Murdoch, and she hated it. But she knew better than to push. At least, not now.
All three turned to face the doorway as Murdoch strode into the kitchen. He took his customary place at the head of the table; smiling up at Maria as she brought him a covered plate from the warmer. “Thank you,” he said; the smile growing as she removed the cover to display a plate of perfectly scrambled eggs and crisp side meat. Picking up his napkin, he shook it out, and then laid it across his knees.
It was a quiet meal. Twice, Teresa tried to make idle conversation. She finally gave up. “May I be excused?” she asked.
Murdoch nodded. He leaned back slightly as Maria refilled his coffee cup.
The housekeeper quietly withdrew; gesturing for Teresa to follow her into the large wash room just off the kitchen. She was well acquainted with the Patrón’s moods and his need for privacy with his sons since their return home; and she respected that need. They were, she mused, young men still in need of a father’s guidance. Especially Juanito; who very often was still more child than man.
Scott waited until the women were gone before speaking. “About today’s work assignments, sir?”
Murdoch took a long drink of coffee before responding. “I’ll discuss the assignments with Cip before I leave,” he answered.
The blond was leaning back in his chair; the long fingers of his right hand curled around his coffee mug, the middle digit tapping noiselessly against the heavy china. He appeared to be totally relaxed. Johnny’s posture was a different matter. The younger man was leaning forward in his chair, his forearms firmly planted on the table; his plate of near uneaten food between them.
Johnny turned to face his father. “Where we goin’?” he asked.
“We aren’t going anywhere,” Murdoch answered. He dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin and laid the cloth beside his plate. “I left a stack of invoices on my desk, along with a copy of the proposal Lyle Kenyon submitted for the new equipment we’ll be needing up at the mill.” He turned to face his elder son. “I want you to acquaint your brother with the finer points of accounting today,” he announced. “We’re coming to the end of month, and I want the ledgers brought up to date. And then the two of you can review the proposal.”
Scott was still toying with his cup. He had learned double-entry bookkeeping at his Grandfather’s knee, at an age when his peers were learning their multiplication tables. While he appreciated the intricacies of accounting and the need for meticulous financial records, he despised the tedium. Johnny, he knew, would hate it even more. “Do you want me to prepare a balance sheet?” he asked quietly.
Before Murdoch had an opportunity to reply to his elder son’s question, Johnny butted in. “Sam said I could do barn chores,” he sniped, “that I could work outside.”
“He also said you weren’t to ride for another week,” Murdoch shot back. “Your brother chose to ignore that rule; I’m going to ignore the one about allowing you out of the house.” There was the sound of soft laughter from Murdoch’s right, and he cast a baleful glare at his eldest. “Do you have something you want to say, Scott?”
The blond was shaking his head; not at the question, but the irony of the situation. “Just an observation, sir,” he ventured. He smiled across at his brother. “That it’s true no good deed goes unpunished.”
Johnny frowned at his brother, not quite sure what he was talking about. “I ain’t doin’ no fuckin’ book work!”
A tense silence descended on the room; Murdoch’s face turning almost beet red. He was about to speak when Maria swept in from the wash room. Frowning at the younger Lancer son, the woman said nothing; her dark eyes bright as she laid the remainder of a still-slick bar of naphtha-based laundry soap next to Murdoch’s left elbow with a pronounced thunk. She disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.
The big Scot fingered the yellow cake of soap, turning to impale his younger son with a particularly harsh glare. “Would you care to repeat that, John?” he asked quietly.
Dark eyelashes fluttering, the young man returned his father’s steady scrutiny; stubbornly refusing to yield even as Murdoch used two fingers to shove the bar of soap across the table top until it was directly in front of his plate. “Nope,” Johnny declared; his tone purposely cavalier.
“What?” Murdoch’s voice was whisper soft; the single word slicing into the silence.
Scott extended his leg, using the toe of his boot to tap his brother’s shin. Johnny’s gaze swung to his sibling’s face, a sudden frown coming as he saw the man silently mouth a ‘no, sir’. He grimaced, gritting his teeth. Shit, he seethed. Shit Fuck!! This time, when he turned back to his father, he could not meet the man’s eyes. Averting his eyes, he said the words: although they were barely audible, “No, sir.” It galled him to his very core that he had been, once again, reduced to giving even one inch to the mountain of a man who was sitting at the head of the table.
“What?” The single word again, a bit louder than before, even more unyielding in its severity.
Johnny shifted uneasily in his chair. He felt a sudden sympathy for the many horses he had ridden to submission; feeling that his Old Man had just put a spade bit in his mouth and pulled him up short. It didn’t help that Murdoch’s bent forefinger was tapping against the block of yellow soap. He sucked in a deep lung full of air. “No, sir,” he repeated; louder than before.
Murdoch withdrew his hand from the bar of naphtha and turned again to his elder son. “A balance sheet won’t be necessary, but I expect the two of you to be finished by the time I return. Understood?”
Scott nodded, choosing to answer for his brother as well as himself. “Yes, sir. We,” he nodded at his sibling, “understand.” He decided to risk it. “And you’ll be back when?” he asked.
Wiping his soapy fingers on his napkin, Murdoch shoved back his chair and stood up. If his son wanted to play, he was willing to oblige him. “When I’ve concluded my business,” he answered. Turning his back on his sons, he strode from the room and into the hallway.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The siblings were together in the Great Room, watching through the large window behind Murdoch’s desk as their father rode out beneath the arch. “So that no sir, yes sir, shit’s in that book of yours somewhere, maybe under ass kissin’?” Johnny fumed. He was as angry at himself as he was at his brother.
Scott laughed. “You would have preferred another mouth full of soap?” He had no doubt that it would have happened again. His father, he knew, was done playing the game by Johnny’s rules.
Johnny shot a dark look at his elder brother. “Told you, that ain’t happen’ again,” he sneered, not sounding quite as sure as he had sounded at the breakfast table. He skillfully changed the subject. “You seen my rig anywhere?” he asked. He’d felt naked the day before at Modoc Charlie’s; not even realizing until the mountain man had confronted him that, in his eagerness to escape from the house after two weeks of confinement, he hadn’t even thought about the weapon.
Teresa chose that precise moment to waltz into the room; feather duster in hand. “Murdoch locked your pistol in his desk drawer,” she announced, “the day you hurt your back.” She paused to flick some non-existent dust from the sails of the large model ship that sat on the table behind the couch. Smiling coyly, she turned to face her brothers. “And what isn’t happening again?”
Scott’s right eyebrow lifted slightly as he eyed the girl. It struck him then, how -- as a child -- when he had asked God for siblings, he had never even considered asking for a sister. Now he knew why. He smiled and shook a finger at the young woman. “I told you at breakfast, Teresa. It doesn’t concern you.”
Johnny smirked, but he resisted the urge to taunt the girl with a nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, naaaah; the smile growing as the girl flounced toward the double doors. She paused at the doorway just long enough to throw the feather duster at her brother; stomping her foot as he side-stepped a direct hit only to catch the duster and drop kick it back in her direction. His aim was much better. She ran into the hallway; sneezing and spitting feathers.
He turned to face his brother. “You got a key to the desk?”
“You don’t need your pistol, Johnny.” Scott had taken a seat in Murdoch’s chair and was now sorting through the pile of invoices. “We’re going to work on the books, not battle land pirates,” he joshed.
“You can work on the fuckin’ books,” Johnny snorted. He sucked in his already flat belly and dug into his front pants pocket; taking out a small, single-bladed pocket knife. “Me, I’m goin’ back up to Modoc Charlie’s.” Moving around to Scott’s side of the desk, he dropped down on his haunches, opened the knife blade, and began to pry at the lock on the bottom drawer.
Scott reached out, his left hand closing around Johnny’s right wrist. “Don’t,” he warned. “And you are not going up to Modoc Charlie’s.”
Johnny’s hand remained where it was. Stubbornly, he was still attempting to pick at the lock. “You gonna stop me, Scott?” he breathed; silently hoping it wouldn’t happen. Scott had a few pounds on him; but it was his brother’s impressive right hand punch that was the real problem.
The blond tightened his grip on his sibling. “Where do you think Murdoch’s gone, little brother?” he asked.
The younger man’s hand stilled. He thought about it for a heartbeat. “Hell,” he grinned, shrugging, “where he always goes once a week since we took care of Pardee. Aggie’s.”
Scott shook his head; recognizing the glimmer of mischief in Johnny’s eyes. “Murdoch goes over to Aggie’s every other Sunday, for dinner. It’s Wednesday, Johnny.”
“So he’s gonna get laid on a weekday,” the youth laughed.
Scott practically choked. Leaning forward over his brother, he boxed the boy’s ears; not letting up until Johnny’s butt hit the floor, hard. “I would suggest, Johnny,” he stood up, pulling his brother with him and dusting him off, “that you never broach that subject with our father.”
Johnny snorted. “‘S’pose that’s in that fuckin’ book, too,” he complained. He smacked his sibling’s flat stomach with the back of his hand. “C’mon, big brother,” he cajoled. “Let me take my pistol,” he tapped the desk drawer with the toe of his boot, “and we’ll head up to old Charlie’s cabin; get those answers to the questions you’re dyin’ to ask.” He had a few questions of his own he intended on asking. “You know damned good and well that’s what you were figurin’ on doin’ before the Old Man decided to stick it to you.” He gestured towards the stack of paper and the ledgers.
“Us,” Scott corrected. “The Old Man stuck it to us.” His head dipped; a slow smile coming. “And yes, there is something in the book about that,” he teased. “‘A gentleman does not discuss his conquests or his dalliances…’”
“So I ain’t a gentleman,” Johnny shrugged, butting in. “And who knows about the Old Man.” His fingers were drumming on the desk. “Need my pistol,” he said.
Scott had taken his seat behind the desk. He debated his next words very carefully before putting voice to them. “We’re going to do the books, brother,” he said. When Johnny started to protest, he raised his hand. “I don’t have a key to Murdoch’s desk, and I’m not going to allow you to jimmy the lock.”
Johnny’s face clouded. Not wanting to fight with his brother, he did an immediate about face and headed for the front door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Cipriano watched as the youngest Lancer son slammed out of the main house. He knew immediately from the youth’s demeanor and his gait that the boy was angry. He saw Johnny turn his head back towards the house without breaking stride, as if he were expecting someone to appear at the door or to come after him; his pace increasing as he continued his trek toward the barn.
The segundo was not alone. His eldest son, Mateo, was just inside the corral gate; checking the half-dozen horses that were going to be turned loose for a well-deserved rest with the estancia’s large remuda in the vast north pasture.
Releasing his hold on the right rear foot of a small sorrel gelding, Mateo cleaned the hoof pick he had been using against his trouser leg. He addressed his father in Spanish. “El muchacho parece estar muy enojado, papá.” (The boy looks very angry, Papa), he observed, moving to the gate and passing through. He secured the latch.
Cipriano laughed; a soft sound filled with good humor. “Juanito siempre se pone bravo cuando su padre le exige que haga algo que no le gusta.” (Juanito always looks angry when his father has given him work that is not to his liking!)
Mateo was standing to his father’s left; their shadows merging on the ground. The young man favored his father; robust and tall, with the same olive complexion and dark hair and eyes. Like his sire, he wore a mustache; although not quite as long, more of the style favored by the Anglos. A year older than Scott Lancer, Mateo had -- like his father and mother before him -- been born in what was now called Old Mexico; but Lancer was the only home he remembered. Someday, when his father and the Patrón were gone, he would be the sons’ segundo.
It was his birthright.
Mateo watched as the younger Lancer son approached. All three Lancer men had distinctive strides. The Patrón and his elder son walked with the clear air of authority and self assurance, long ground-eating steps that -- when the two men walked side by side -- were in perfect cadence. Johnny’s walk was different. His gait varied; a slow, saunter when he seemed totally relaxed, sometimes a heel-kicking dance when he was at play. But now, in the full throes of anger, it was as if he were a great cat, stalking its prey; no hesitancy in his stride as he closed in for the kill: his full focus on where he was going and what he was going to do.
Cipriano moved out to meet the younger man. “Juanito,” he called out, his voice soft.
Johnny responded with a curt nod. He kept walking and brushed by the man, heading for the barn.
“Juanito!” This time, the segundo’s voice was harsh; his tone a clear indication that he expected to be obeyed.
Johnny stopped dead in his tracks. Hands at his sides, he flexed his fists; his eyes closing briefly. Murdoch had made it perfectly clear the first night his sons had returned home as to what the chain of command was on the estancia. Cip was, in every sense of the word, the Old Man’s undisputed second in command. He was also Johnny’s uncle. Still, the young man debated just going on, just putting one foot in front of the other, but he was compelled to turn around. “¿Qué?” (What?) he asked in Spanish, his tone surly.
Cip was pointing to a spot directly in front of himself. “Ven aquí, sobrino.” (Come here, nephew), he ordered. “¡Ahora!” (Now!)
Visibly, the younger man bristled. His gaze lifted to meet Mateo’s dark eyes before shifting to Cipriano’s. He shook his head and stayed right where he was. “Me voy, Viejo. Tengo cosas para hacer.” (I’m headin’ out, Old Man. Got things to do.)
Incensed at the younger man’s tone, the flagrant disrespect, Mateo made a sudden move forward; only to find himself being held back by his father. Cipriano’s eyes narrowed, a stern frown coming as he stood his ground. When he opened his mouth to speak, it was to his son. “Cuando lleves los caballos al pasto norte, mi hijo, llevate uno mas.” (When you take the horses up to the north pasture, son, you will be taking one other.) He nodded toward the barn. “Llevate el palomino tambien.” (You will take the palomino as well.)
Johnny’s head came up suddenly, his cheeks flushing a bright red. “¡De ninguna cabrona manera!” (No fuckin’ way!) he spat. Fists clenched, he spun around and took off again for the barn.
Cipriano immediately followed the youth, catching up with him just as Johnny laid his hand on the latch on the barn door. The fingers of his left hand digging into Johnny’s right shoulder, the towering segundo turned the youth around, firmly planting himself directly in front of the boy. “¡No me des tu espalda, niño!” (You do not turn your back on me, boy!) he declared. “¡Yo soy tu tío, y me tratarás con respeto!” (I am your uncle, and you will speak to me with respect!)
The brunet was, for once, at a loss for words. He stood with his back pressed against the barn door, Cipriano’s breath warm across his forehead. Amazingly, Cip’s touch was unexpectedly light, although Johnny had no doubt in his mind that the big man could -- and would -- keep him pinned in place without much effort. He inhaled, his chin dropping against his chest as he weighed his options. “Necesito salir de aquí, Cip; solamente por un ratico.” (I need to get outta here, Cip; just for awhile.) Wetting the corner of his mouth with his tongue, he tried again. He knew the older man had a soft spot for him, and he attempted -- shamelessly -- to find it. “He estado encerrado demasiado tiempo, Tío,” (Been cooped up too long, Uncle,) he breathed. “Necesito salir, sentir el viento en mi cara. Usted sabe cóme es, estár allí fuera…” (Need to get out, feel the wind on my face. You know how it is, bein’ out there…)
Cip’s head tilted slightly, his right eyebrow raising. Johnny’s expression was totally guileless; his face radiating innocence. The segundo wasn’t buying it. As a toddler, Johnny had been notorious for his ability to charm his way out of trouble; although not very often with his sometimes dubious sire. “Tu padre dijo que hoy ibas a trabajar con tu hermano, Juanito. En la casa.” (Your father said you would be working with your brother today, Juanito. In the house.) He backed up a pace, bringing the younger man forward with him. “¿Has acabado el trabajo, niño?” (Have you finished your work, boy?)
“¡No voy a trabajar con esos libros de mierda!” (I ain’t doin’ no goddamn, fuckin’ bookwork!) the younger man snarled. He realized at once that he had not only spoken out of turn, but had again used language his soft-spoken uncle abhorred. Johnny knew he needed to eat crow or face a severe dressing down; and in front of Mateo. “Lo siento…” (Sorry…)
The tall Mexican cut him off with a single wave of his hand. “Solamente que te cogieron, sobrino.” (Only that you have been caught, nephew.) With that, and a nod to his elder son, Cip pulled Johnny close and headed towards the house.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was sulking in the chair in front of Murdoch’s great desk. Slouched down, his left leg cocked across his right thigh, he was still wearing his Stetson; the hat pulled down low on his forehead, his eyes hidden. The forefinger of his right hand was attacking the rowel of his left spur, snagging the silver wheel and tugging it to him with increasing ferocity, ching-ching-ching-ching; the sound cutting into the customary quiet.
Scott was shaking his head. “Johnny,” he said, the word coming softly. Nothing. He tried again, this time a bit louder. “Johnny!”
“What!?” the younger man barked.
“You need to settle down.” Scott pushed back the chair and stood up. He moved around to the front of the desk; resting his buttocks against the edge as, arms crossed, he stood in front of his brother. “Talk to me, brother,” he coaxed.
Johnny’s head snapped up. “He took my horse, Scott! He fuckin’ took Barranca; told me he was gonna have Mateo turn ‘im out with the remuda; keep ‘im there ‘til I learned to do what Murdoch tells me!! Like I’m some fuckin’ kid …!” Cip’s quiet but firm lecture had continued during their long journey from the barn, and his ears were still burning. His day had started out like shit, and it sure in hell wasn’t improving.
Scott reached out, laying his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You are a kid,” he said, his voice whisper soft. “To a man like Cip -- to a man like our father -- you’re still…”
Johnny pushed his brother’s hand away. “I ain’t been a kid since I was ten years old, Scott!” he snorted. “I don’t give a shit what Sam’s got wrote down in his fuckin’ journal, or what Cip and the Old Man think!” He levered himself up out of the chair. “This is fuckin’ bullshit! Barranca ain’t the only horse on this ranch.” Shouldering his way past his brother, he headed for the open French doors and the front veranda.
Suddenly, the young man felt himself bodily jerked back into the Great Room. Scott had grabbed his recalcitrant brother by the scruff of his neck and his belt. “Oh, no you don’t; not this time!” He hauled his struggling sibling back into the room and pulled him towards the desk. None too gently, he pushed his brother into Murdoch’s high-backed chair; making a point to stand above him and trapping him between his arms. His patience was wearing thin. “Our job today,” he said, “is to do the books; and that’s damned well what we’re going to do! For once, little brother, you’re going to suck up and pay the piper!”
The brunet’s mouth suddenly quirked up in a half smile as he remembered Murdoch saying the same words in the not so distant past; and he took a half-hearted swing at his brother’s head. “You tryin’ to tell me you’re callin’ the tune?”
Unable to stop himself, Scott laughed. “For now, yes.” He straightened and stepped back from in front of the chair.
“It’s your fault, ya know,” Johnny reasoned, leaning forward, “that we’re here doin’ this shit.”
“Excuse me?” Scott had moved to his brother’s side and was laying out a row of bills.
“We wouldn’t be stuck in here if you hadn’t taken me on that ride.” Johnny ventured.
Scott snorted. His younger brother had become very adept at finger pointing when he was in trouble with their father. “I didn’t hear you saying no to the suggestion,” he observed, smacking his brother’s shoulder.
“What? And not do somethin’ my big brother…” the smile was now a full-fledged smirk, “…my guard-i-an,” he drug the word out, “told me to do!?” Johnny leaned back in the big chair, giving a push with his toe to spin it around. He stared longingly at the broad expanse of land beyond the window before spinning the chair back into place. “Fuckin’ might as well be in fuckin’ jail,” he groused. The shift from sunlight to darkness was quick and complete.
The blond’s jaws tightened. “May I remind you,” he began, “that -- while I’m here because I took you for that ride -- you, little brother, are here because of your constant use of foul language you know Murdoch doesn’t like hearing; and neither do I. So, you can quit spouting off like some drunken drover.” Before the younger man could say anything, he turned, picking up the stack of invoices he had still not posted. “I’ve recorded about half of the statements,” he announced. “Your turn.” He handed his brother the pen.
His foul disposition unchanged, Johnny flicked the pen away, droplets of ink marking its path and leaving a splotched trail across the open ledger. He reached out, picking up the blotter, and attempted to clean up the mess. “Told the Old Man, I ain’t doin’ any fu…” He caught himself, realizing Scott had gone real quiet. Too quiet. Realizing he needed a distraction, he changed the subject to one more of his liking. “You gonna tell me it ain’t eatin’ at you? What Modoc Charlie told us yesterday; ‘bout Murdoch, ‘bout him commandin’ those ships?” He pushed himself up out of the chair and began pacing. “Jesus Christ, brother! That old man knows more about Murdoch -- about Lancer -- than we do!!”
Scott was shaking his head. His brother had an annoying habit of chewing on a thing until he got to the marrow and sucked it dry. The frustration was in his voice. “I asked you earlier this morning, Johnny. Where do you think Murdoch has gone?”
“And I told you!” Johnny shot back. “Over to Aggie’s, to get…”
The blond’s right hand came up, halting the tirade. “Murdoch’s gone up to Mr. Bellingham’s cabin, Johnny. He may have ridden in the direction of Aggie Conway’s place when he rode out; but I can assure you, that’s not where he was going.” His voice lowered.
“Do you really think, after what happened this morning, I was going to risk you locking horns with Murdoch again by riding up to Modoc Charlie’s place; only to find out our father is already there?” he asked. “I don’t know about you, baby brother, but I don’t plan on spending the rest of my life chained to this desk and these ledgers. We’re going to pay our due, and get on with it.” To make his point, he picked up the pen and pressed it into his brother’s hand.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch entered the clearing at a slow walk. The midmorning sun was well up now; bright beams of liquid gold pouring through the dense spring leaves to create small puddles of light against the dark, forested floor. It never ceased to amaze him; the diversity of the land he had chosen to make his own. From the forests and the mountains high above the tree line; to the soft rolling foothills that surrounded the valley, the place was paradise to him, and so unlike the often fog-shrouded land he had left behind.
The glen at Cedar Creek was one of his favorite spots. He pulled the big gelding to a stop; just shy of Modoc Charlie’s front porch. The mountain man was standing in the open doorway. “Charlie,” he greeted. He remained mounted. Charlie Bellingham was one of the few men Murdoch Lancer truly respected; and that esteem extended to a polite formality that both men never failed to observe.
Charlie nodded in greeting. “I’ve got fresh coffee, Murdoch,” he offered.
Murdoch dismounted; leading his horse to the small hitching rail that fronted the path leading up to the porch steps. “Where’s Romulus?” he asked, tying off the bay. The wolf was usually curled up on the porch, or inside the cabin on Bellingham’s cot.
The older man laughed. “Underneath the cabin.” He shook a finger at the tall rancher. “Still remembers that gelding of yours kicking him across the clearing when he was a pup! About the only animal he shies away from!” The smile faded. “You’re here about your boys,” he breathed.
Murdoch was climbing the steps. “We need to talk, Charlie.” He followed the older man inside.
Charlie immediately went to the hearth. He did all of his cooking in the fireplace; the interior firebox kitted out to include a variety of swing out hooks and adjustable grates suitable for boiling, baking and broiling. A fire burned even during the long summer; although the neat little house was never overly warm. There was a subtle creak of metal as he pulled the large coffee pot from over the flames; a similar squeak coming as he tipped the pot forward and filled the tin mugs. Murdoch was seated at the table when he put the mugs down; and he took the seat immediately opposite the taller man. “They favor their mothers,” he said quietly before taking a long sip of the strong brew.
Murdoch nodded. “But they have the Lancer eyes,” he said. The next words came quietly, and with obvious restraint and he got straight to the point. “You told them I captained my own ships.”
The mountain man nodded and continued sipping his coffee. His friendship with Murdoch Lancer had been tenuous in the beginning. The big Scot was a foreigner in a strange land; with little knowledge of the language and an open disdain for a class culture whose roots ran straight back to Rome and the authority of the Pope. A pilgrim and an avowed Protestant in a country that required conversion to Catholicism and an oath of loyalty to the King of Spain. Murdoch had learned to speak Spanish in this very cabin, as had his first wife, Catherine; and Charlie Bellingham had been their stern tutor.
The old man put down his mug. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, old friend,” he murmured. There was a slight rustling sound as he shrugged his shoulders. “Your sons have a right to know about their father; what kind of man it took to rebuild an estancia that had been left to ruin by a foppish degenere (degenerate), the kind of man who had the foresight to …”
Murdoch suddenly cut the mountain man off. “What kind of man,” he breathed, as he had not heard the rest. He searched out the older man’s eyes; pinning him with baleful stare. “My eldest son served with Sheridan,” he said. “He spent a year in a Confederate prison. How do you think he would feel if he knew those ships I commanded carried fugitive slaves back to their owners; ferried others that were born in this country with their owners to new plantations in Texas and Mexico? That before I met his mother, I built my fortune on the backs of men, women and children…” he repeated the word, “…children who were considered property?” While he had never crossed the line legally, deep down he had questioned the morality of what he was doing. Yet another thing from his past he deeply regretted, but could not change.
Charlie had just taken a drink of his now tepid coffee. He slammed the mug down on the table. “‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart…’ Ephesians 6:5,” he spat. “I remember the sermons from when I was a boy,” he argued. “Men of God justifying slavery from the pulpits.” His own views on slavery were ambivalent. It was a common practice among the many Indian tribes he had encountered over the years; and not much different, in his opinion, than the peon system perpetuated by the hacienda owners who bound the peasants to the land in perpetual bonded servitude.
“Was it any different then when you worked for Joe Barker?” he continued. “When the two of you hunted men for bounty; bounty you used to finance your search for one son, and the legal battles for the other?”
Murdoch laughed; the sound caustic and filled with irony. “It wasn’t the money I earned with Barker that caused the problems with Garrett and his attorneys,” he said, hesitating, his voice ragged as he inhaled; “it was the money I used to purchase Lancer; where that money had come from.” He was quiet for a long moment. When he spoke again, the words came softly and were filled with regret.
“The legal battles I lost with Harlan when I attempted to regain custody of Scott were a direct result of my involvement in the transport of slaves, Charlie. It didn’t matter that what I had been involved in was legal; or that I had decided for myself later it was morally wrong,” he drew in a deep breath, remembering Catherine’s impassioned pleas for the cause of abolition, “what mattered was that Harlan could use my past to sway the opinion of judges who felt my actions as a ship’s master were an abomination.
“Between that and my failed second marriage to Catholic ‘foreigner’; it was more than enough to have them, time and again, judge me unfit!” Once more, his voice lowered, the next words coming as a mere whisper. “And Maria,” he breathed. “Maria spent years telling Johnny I threw them out; that I didn’t want a half-breed son…” He cleared his throat.
“I need time, Charlie. I need time with my sons -- time for my boys to get to know the man I am -- before I tell them about the past. I need you to give me that time.”
The mountain man was silent for a long time. He had been living on the estancia for almost forty years. His wife, She-who-sings -- the Modoc woman who had borne him three sons -- was buried on a small hill behind the cabin; their children with her. Murdoch had been with him through his losses; just as he had been with the big Scot through his troubles. Except for when Pardee came. He had been in San Francisco to a doctor when Pardee’s raids occurred… “I don’t have that much time to give, old friend,” he whispered. He smiled. “I won’t discuss you personal business with your boys, Murdoch. But I don’t know if I can promise to not answer a direct question.”
“Fair enough.” In his entire life, Murdoch Lancer had never asked anyone to lie for him, and he would adhere to that principle. Finishing the last of his coffee; a great weight lifted from his shoulders. “I told them that they were not to come up here again,” he announced. His head tilted slightly. “You said something before that I didn’t quite catch.” The light went on. “Your trip to San Francisco, to the doctor Sam recommended. What news?”
Charlie’s hand went to his lower abdomen and then dropped to his lap as he realized his unthinking move. “I’d consider it a great favor, when the time comes, if you put me with my wife and my children,” he answered. He decided to say more. “A cancer,” he tapped his belly. “Here.”
Genuinely concerned by what he was hearing, Murdoch reached out and laid his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Charlie shook his head. “I’m going to be seventy-five years old the first of next month, Murdoch. I’ve outlived my siblings; my family back East. My wife and my boys.” He smiled. “More lives than a cat,” he mused.
“This,” he raised his arm, making a wide circle as he indicated the interior of the cabin and the clearing beyond, “has been my home for almost forty years, Murdoch.” He nodded to the curtained cot in the far corner. “I want to die in my own bed, not curled up in the trunk of some dead tree in the middle of winter.”
Murdoch nodded his head. He had no doubt what the old man had in mind if things became really bad. “Johnny,” he said. “He’ll come up here in spite of what I’ve told him.” He smiled at the mountain man. “Tell him war stories, Charlie; your war stories. And make him earn what he eats. The boy has a big appetite.”
Charlie returned the smile. “The boy has a big mouth. I won’t abide his rudeness.”
The big rancher stood up. “I’ll be up here again before the week is out, Charlie. I’ve some new periodicals to bring to you, and Scott’s just finished Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.” He studied the man briefly. “Thank you.” Charles Bellingham, he knew, one-time heir to the largest steel foundry in the northern United States was a unique and honorable gentleman.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The brothers were on their feet; standing at the desk. The ranch ledger was laid out in front of them, the soft baritone of the elder sibling patiently explaining the correlation of the columns of numbers and the rationale of debit and credit entries in the many accounts.
“And he’s got books like this for the mill, too?” Johnny asked.
Scott nodded. “For all of his properties and his investments,” he observed. Although he didn’t know much about his father’s past, he was aware that Murdoch had holdings and partnerships beyond the ranch. If nothing else, Murdoch had a shrewd mind and a Scotsman’s sense of thrift, and Scott had no doubts his father had made wise investments.
Johnny’s thoughts were more focused on the bottom line. “So, we’re rich?” he asked. “I mean, like rollin’ in it?”
The blond laughed. “I think it’s safe to assume we would be considered reasonably wealthy, even by my Grandfather’s standards.” The irony of what he had just said did not escape him, and raised more questions he knew, in all likelihood, his father would never answer.
“So you’re sayin’ I should hit the Old Man up for a raise?” Johnny’s right forefinger was tracing a series of numbers on the open, right-hand page.
Roused from his dark musings, Scott tapped his brother’s stomach with the back of his hand. “Right,” he snickered. “Maybe you could do it now,” he suggested, nodding towards the main roadway, “since he’s just coming under the arch.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “Uh,” his tongue went to the corner of his mouth, his brow furrowing as his eyebrows came together. “Maybe later,” he said. Already, he was edging away from the desk.
“Whoa!” Scott reached out, taking his brother’s arms. “What’s up?”
Johnny debated the lie and decided to hell with it. “Cip’s out there,” he said, nodding in the direction of the yard and the barn. “He talks to the Old Man, I’m gonna be dead meat.” He tugged at his brother’s fingers.
Scott wasn’t letting go. “And?”
Johnny’s face flamed a bright red. “I cussed Cip out! When he was draggin’ me back to the house!” What he didn’t volunteer was that he had lost his temper and called his uncle a bastard son-of-a-bitch.
The blond held up his hand. “And Mateo didn’t knock you on your posterior?” he asked. Cip’s elder son was extremely close to his father, and he did not tolerate insults or disrespect cast in his father’s direction; especially when that impudence came from blood.
“I’m standin’ here, ain’t I? Mateo didn’t hear me,” the younger man fumed. “C’mon, Scott.” He gestured towards the desk, and the papers Scott had stacked neatly in front of their father’s chair. “We got all the paperwork done, read that damned proposal for the mill equipment. What else we gotta do?”
Behind him, Scott heard the Grandfather clock ping the half-hour. Five-thirty, he mused. Except for Johnny’s brief attempt at a break out, and the lunch they had eaten at Murdoch’s desk, they had spent the majority of the day effectively under house arrest. He let go of his brother’s arm. “You do know Murdoch’s going to expect you to be at the table at six,” he cautioned.
Johnny was already headed for the small anti-room between the Great Room and the kitchen, moving in double-quick time. “Yeah. That gives me about twenty-five minutes of peace before he starts chewin’ my ass.” Already, the words and the jingle of his spurs were fading as the younger man disappeared and pulled the door shut.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Where’s your brother?” Murdoch stepped down into the Great Room, his right hand slapping against his thigh as he swept the last of the trail dirt from his trousers.
Scott was at the drink table, pouring a tumbler of Taliskers. Even in profile, the smile was evident. He turned, offering the drink to his father. “Answering nature’s call,” he fibbed, not at all ashamed of the small lie. He helped himself to a full measure as well.
Murdoch had crossed the room to his desk. He remained standing, savoring his drink as he inspected to open ledger, the forefinger of his right hand moving from column to column, his head nodding as he checked the entries. “Good, good,” he murmured, mentally adding or subtracting as he continued ticking off the columns. A smile came then as he noted the difference in penmanship on the page; his own Spencerian script almost identical to Scott’s slightly more fluid writing style, Johnny’s handwriting less grand but certainly legible. He was pleasantly surprised to find that Johnny had made as many entries as his brother. “So how did it go, son?” he asked, taking his seat behind the desk.
“Surprisingly well once we got started.” Scott moved over to the desk and joined his father, taking his usual chair in front of the desk. “He’s got such a quick mind, Murdoch,” he announced. “I tutored freshman boys when I went back to Harvard -- reasonably bright young men who matriculated in from very decent private schools -- and Johnny could have held his own with any of them!
“We finished the books, sir, and then reviewed the proposal for the mill equipment. Johnny picked up on the need to not only replace the existing equipment, but he also realized we’d have to expand the current building where we’re storing the lumber for curing.” He smiled up at his father. Scott’s enthusiasm was catching, and it was clear from the expression on his face, Murdoch found himself caught up in his elder son’s excitement. “I think he’s really interested, Murdoch.”
The older man took a long drink. “And when did he develop that interest, Scott? Before or after he tried to leave the house?” He saw the sudden look of chagrin on his elder son’s face and tempered his next words accordingly. “I spoke to Cipriano when I rode in. He said Johnny tried to leave; not too long after I rode out. He also said your brother was less than respectful when he was told he was supposed to working with you here in the house.”
Scott was studying the remainder of his Scotch, debating refilling his glass. “Well, you know Johnny.” He saluted his father with his drink. “He had to at least attempt a getaway.” Once, before the two indoor bath rooms had been completed, Johnny had feigned an urgent need to use the outhouse to get out from under his father and brother’s watchful eyes; making it all the way into Green River before they realized he had gone.
“I didn’t go after him because I knew Cip and Mateo were working in the corral. I thought it would be a good thing if my little brother learned that you and I aren’t the only ones concerned with his well being, or watching out for him. Cipriano took him to task, and that was the end of it.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Not quite,” he said. “Johnny lost his temper and called Cip a ‘cabron hijo de puta’ -- bastard son of a bitch,” he translated. “I’ll be speaking to him about his behavior after dinner,” he declared. He finished his drink. “He will be at the dinner table?” he asked.
Scott was frowning. “He damned well better be,” he muttered. He downed the last of his Scotch, setting the glass upside down on the silver tray.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was in the kitchen. He was standing behind Maria, his arms around the woman’s waist and a mischievous smile on his face. “C’mon, Mamacita,” he begged, his right hand inching towards the still-warm cherry pie the woman was taking down from the pie cabinet. “Solamente un pedacito (Just one little piece),” he coaxed, crooning to the woman in Spanish. “No he tenido nada para comer desde almuerzo y eso huele muy sabroso (Ain’t had nothin’ to eat since lunch, and that smells mighty sweet.)”
Teresa was watching from the stove; where she stood stirring the crusty crumbs from the fried chicken she had just removed from the pan, the wooden spoon making slow figure-eights as she added some cream to the simmering gravy. “Give it up, Johnny,” she laughed. “You know the rules about dessert! Nothing until you’ve eaten everything, including the green beans!!”
The brunet shot his sister a harsh glare. In his reality, the only thing remotely green he ever ate willingly were the hot peppers Maria kept on hand; pickled or preferably fresh from her garden. “You just worry about not burnin’ that gravy,” he snorted. “Last time you tried makin’ gravy,” he sniped, “I had to cut it with a knife…”
Teresa’s face flamed a bright red. “You did not!” she shot back. To make her point, she scooped up a spoonful of the creamy sauce, allowing it to spill back into the pan; the gravy perfect.
Johnny was on a roll, and teasing Teresa was one of his favorite past times. “Did, too!” he smirked. “Jeez, T’resa, Scott said we could’ve used it to patch up the adobe on the garden wall!” he lied. Intent on harassing the girl even more, he made the mistake of turning away from Maria and grabbed for the salt shaker, hoisting it above the frying pan.
THWACK!! The sound was amplified by the tile walls and floor; Maria’s large wooden spoon smacking solidly against the seat of Johnny’s tight pants. The second swat was even more intense than the first; eliciting a surprised ‘WHOA!’
Johnny spun around, his right hand rubbing furiously at his rear end; his eyes blinking in an attempt to stop the tears were threatening to spill. “¡Maldición, Mamacita! (Goddammit, Mamacita!) ” he swore, reverting to Spanish. “¡Eso duele como el infierno santo! (That hurt like all Holy Hell!)”
Maria’s right eyebrow arched. Even angrier because of the swearing she reached around the young man and took another swing at his rear end. When she withdrew the spoon, it was minus the curved bowl. “¡Sal! (Out!)” she commanded, waving the handle of the broken spoon, “sal de mi cocina ahora mismo! (out of my kitchen, now!)” She began muttering, not a good thing. “¡Comportándose como un niño mal criado! ¡Si yo fuera tu papa, te mandaría a tu cuarto sin comer! ¡Rompiendo mi cuchara…! (Behaving like a naughty child!If I was your Papa, I’d send you to your room without supper! Breaking my spoon…!)”
Wisely, Johnny was backing out of the room. He found his way blocked and turned around to find himself nose to chest with his father. Scott was standing right behind the Old Man.
“Something wrong, son?” Murdoch asked; an amused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Johnny shook his head, shooting his elder brother a look before answering. “Ahhh, nope.” He lifted his hands. “Just headin’ upstairs to wash up for supper,” he said.
Oh, you are smooth, baby brother, the blond reflected, watching as his brother disappeared up the back stairways.
Murdoch bent down, scooping up the remainder of Maria’s spoon. “Maria?”
The woman drew herself up to her full height; the top of her head still well below the patriarch’s chin. “My kitchen,” she replied. “He will behave himself in my kitchen, and he will buy me a new spoon!” Deftly, she plucked the piece of wood from Murdoch’s hand. “A bigger spoon!!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny grimaced as his father handed him the bowl of green beans. “Plate’s kinda full,” he said, pointing to the mashed potatoes and the two pieces of chicken he had arranged to cover the entire dish.
Murdoch picked up his own fork and pushed the mashed potatoes on his son’s plate more toward the middle. “There’s plenty of room,” he said; offering the bowl again.
The younger man’s shoulders lifted and he sighed. He picked up the spoon and measured out a small portion of the hated beans. It didn’t help that Teresa was sitting across from him and smirking.
Scott was dabbing at the corner of his mouth with his napkin; struggling to keep a straight face. Hoping to help his sibling out, he reached across the table and took the bowl of vegetables. “I’ll take some of those, brother,” he smiled.
Johnny couldn’t pass the dish fast enough. “Up for getting your a... butt whupped at chess tonight?” he challenged.
The blond cast a quick glance at his father before answering. He was still puzzled as to Murdoch’s demeanor; the fact the man hadn’t called Johnny to task yet for what had transpired between the younger man and his uncle. “If I remember right,” he said, gesturing with his fork, “I’m still one game ahead in our little contest.”
“Only ‘cause you cheated last time,” Johnny teased. His eyes were dancing in anticipation of the coming battle. And that’s what it was when he and his brother competed. Didn’t matter if was cards, or checkers, or flat out racing on the road into town; they always played at war.
Murdoch watched the banter between his sons. He had done a lot of thinking on his ride back from Charlie Bellingham’s cabin. He knew without a doubt that both of his boys would probably ignore his ‘suggestion’ to not visit the old man, and decided on a new course of action; certain Charlie would keep his word. “I’ve reconsidered my decision about the two of you and Charlie Bellingham,” he announced.
Both young men stopped eating; their eyes lifting to the rafters as if they were expecting the ceiling to cave in. Scott was the first to speak. “Are you saying you now have no objection to our visiting his cabin?” he asked.
There was a sound as the older man put down his coffee cup. “Charlie’s ill,” he said. “That’s why he wasn’t here when Pardee was orchestrating the raids against Lancer. Sam recommended he see a doctor in San Francisco, and the news was not good.” He swept both of his sons with his eyes, settling for a time on Johnny before turning his attention back to his coffee. “I plan on visiting Charlie at least once a week. I think it would be a good thing if -- when your work brings you near his cabin -- you looked in on him as well.”
Johnny shifted in his chair. The fact Murdoch had changed his mind and was now saying it was all right to visit the mountain man was not only unexpected, it bordered on the damned near miraculous. Truth be told, the youth was disappointed. Half the fun -- Hell, two-thirds of it -- in getting the Old Man pissed off was all the plotting and planning it took to get around him. Not paying attention to what he was doing, Johnny actually scooped a fork full of green beans into his mouth; sputtering and making a face as he washed them down with milk. “So, you’re sayin’ we can talk to the old coot?” he asked.
Scott extended his leg and thumped his brother hard with the toe of his boot. “I noticed he had your copy of Last of the Mohicans, sir. I’ve got a copy of Irving’s The Sketch Book I haven’t unpacked yet. If you think he would be interested…”
Murdoch interrupted his son, quite gently. “I’d like a look at that myself, son,” he smiled. “I don’t have a copy in my library.”
Johnny sighed. It was plain where this conversation was going. No where. He leaned back, waiting for Maria to take his plate; another sigh escaping as he realized the woman had no intention of removing the dish until he ate the last three remaining green beans. He picked them up with his fingers; knowing it would irritate her, and was rewarded for his impudence with a finger-thump behind his right ear. “Hey!” he said, brushing her hand away and rubbing the spot with two fingers.
The housekeeper left the room and quickly returned with a tray full of individual servings of cherry pie; each piece drizzled with a thin rum-flavored icing that seemed to fill the entire room with its sweet aroma. One by one, she served the pie; Murdoch first, then Teresa, then Scott, and finally Johnny. His was the smallest piece of pie on the table. Sure didn’t have to be the brightest candle in the candlestick, he mused, to figure the woman was still pissed at him.
Scott made a point of finishing his pie in record time; much to his younger brother’s displeasure. He took his last bite just as Johnny attempted to spear an especially plump cherry from his plate; grinning in unabashed pleasure as he sucked the sweet fruit from his fork. “Very tasty,” he smirked, patting his flat belly.
“Wouldn’t know,” Johnny groused. “Mine was all crust.”
Maria harrumphed as she refilled Murdoch’s cup and began the final circuit with the coffee pot. Scott covered his cup with his hand, “No gracias, Maria.” And then he stood up; pausing to pull out Teresa’s chair. Sensing something was up, the girl hurriedly followed Maria into the kitchen. Scott nodded to his father. “If you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said.
Wary, Johnny started to rise, “Me, too.”
Murdoch waved his youngest back into his chair. “You and I are not through here, John.” He moved his elbow and watched as the cook returned briefly to give him a new cup and to pour more coffee, knowing from the aroma she had prepared a fresh pot.
Johnny sunk back into his chair. He watched as his father lifted the cup to his mouth to drink; watched as the cup went back to the saucer. Up. Down. Up. Down. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“What happened between you and your uncle, John?” Murdoch set the cup down for the final time, his eyes on his son.
The youth’s first instinct was to simply not answer; just sit like a rock with the Madrid wall firmly in place between them. He knew, however, from the look on his father’s face it wasn’t going to work. Not this time. “We kinda had words,” the younger man said, shrugging.
“Words,” Murdoch echoed softly. “It’s my understanding that those words were serious enough that Cip decided Barranca should be moved up to the north pasture. What happened?” he pressed.
Johnny’s posture immediately changed, his back going rigid; his arms wrapped around his chest and his fingers working against his biceps. He was looking everywhere except at his father. His right shoulder lifted in a not-so-subtle shrug. “If you know about Barranca, then it’s pretty fuckin’ clear Cip told ya the rest.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth he regretted them. Much as he hated doing it, he knew from the look on his father’s face it was necessary if he wanted to avoid a trip back upstairs to the bath room sink and another dose of soap. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“For what, John?” Murdoch’s eyes bored into the younger man. Johnny was an expert at vagaries; his one or two word apologies usually lacking any true remorse. Worse, that what he was saying he was sorry for was that he had been caught and was about to be called to task; not for his wrongdoing. “I want you to tell me exactly” the older man stressed the word with a single thump of his forefinger against the table; the sound muffled by the linen table cloth but nonetheless quite loud, “what transpired between you and your uncle?”
Christ! What the fucking hell does he want? Johnny slumped back in his chair, considering his father’s question. It took a little time to figure out what his father expected; what he needed to say. “Sorry for the cussin’.” He knew from the look on his father’s face it wasn’t enough and plunged on, taking a deep breath. “Cip hollered at me for leavin’ the house,” he whispered. “Said I was s’posed to be workin’ with Scott, like you told me.”
“And?” Murdoch was as relentless in his questioning as he was in his scrutiny.
“Told him I had places to go,” Johnny clipped. He had hunkered down even farther in the chair, his eyes downcast. “He wasn’t buyin’ it. Next thing I know, he’s draggin’ me back to the house and Mateo’s headin’ out with…” his chin trembled as he fought back the anger, “…Barranca.” He and ol’ Mateo were gonna have a long talk over that one.
Murdoch raked his long fingers of his right hand through his hair. Dragging anything out of his son was like pulling a stick out of a dead snapping turtle’s mouth. “Finish it,” he ordered.
Johnny winced at his father’s tone. The next words came softly. He really did regret what had happened. “Lost my temper,” he breathed. His jaws flexed as he gritted his teeth. This time he whispered, aware that his father had come forward in his chair and was canting his ear towards him. “I called ‘im a bastard son-of-a-bitch,” he murmured. God, this was hard. He inhaled. “Took a swing at him.”
Murdoch nodded curtly. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Let’s go,” he said.
The younger man’s head snapped up, and he swallowed; not sure what to expect. He felt himself being bodily lifted from the chair.
“You’re going to apologize to your uncle, Johnny. A proper apology. And then, young man, we will discuss your punishment.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The short walk to Cipriano’s house -- which stood just south and west of the hacienda’s vast garden -- was, for Johnny, far too reminiscent of the forced march he and the others had made from the walled mission courtyard where the ruales had kept them imprisoned; to the killing field just beyond the village. Only Murdoch’s legs were much longer than the capitán’s. Mentally cursing, Johnny hurried to keep up, shaking his head as his father reached his destination ahead of him.
Reaching out, Murdoch tapped lightly on the door, waiting for a response. He turned slightly, studying his son; suppressing a smile as Johnny caught up. He saw the youth fiddling with the wooden buttons on his shirt. Johnny’s hands were always busy, usually an indication he was up to, or planning, something. So much for the old saw about idle hands being the devil’s playground.
Cipriano answered the door himself, his massive frame a momentary dark shadow in the doorway. Smiling, he stood back, gesturing for his guests to enter. “Mi casa es su casa,” (My house is your house) he greeted.
The room was warm, the heat from the cook stove still radiating from the kitchen; the thick adobe walls holding in the warmth. Elena was busy at the sink, and she turned to nod in greeting. A smile played on her lips as she spied Johnny, her eyes warming. And then she turned back to her dishes; a soft, sweet sound coming as she began to hum.
Cipriano led the way to the living room, pausing in front of the fire to light his after dinner cigarillo. He offered a smoke to Murdoch, smiling when the man accepted. “Sit,” he invited.
Murdoch nodded his head. “Thank you, Cip.” Waiting until his segundo took his place in his own chair; he settled into the other seat next to the fireplace. Both men enjoyed several pulls on their brown-papered cheroots before Murdoch finally spoke. “John, I believe you have something to say to your uncle.”
Johnny remained standing; keenly aware that he had not been invited to sit down. He watched the two men as they puffed on their smokes. Clearing his throat, he began. Somehow it would be easier to say it in Spanish; even knowing that Murdoch would understand what he was saying. “Lo siento, Tío. (I’m sorry, Uncle.)” There was a soft whoosh as he sucked in a lung full of air. In the heat of his temper, the words had come far too easily; but now, without the full fire of his anger, it was a struggle. “Siento que te llame un cabron hijo de puta y que te falte el respeto. (I’m sorry I called you a bastard son-of-a-bitch, and that I was disrespectful.) His eyes lowered briefly then lifted to explore his uncle’s face. It hit him then. His uncle. All those years when he was adrift, he had had an uncle; an uncle, a father and a brother….
A family, he realized. The next words came with a strange, unfamiliar contentment and no small amount of conviction. “No pasará otra vez. (It won’t happen again.)”
Cipriano took another long drag on his cigarette, the blue smoke coming in a series of rings as he exhaled. Purposely avoiding the younger man’s eyes, he studied the burning tip of the cigar for a time, finally speaking. “¿Puedes mantener esa promesa, Juanito? (Can you keep that promise, Johnny?)”
Johnny swallowed. “Puedo tratar, Tío. Voy a tratar. (I can try, Uncle. I will try.)”
The segundo stood up, Murdoch following suit. Cipriano reached out, his right hand caressing the younger man’s cheek, the words coming softly and with great affection as well as a paternal sternness. “Soy tu padrino, Juanito. Me tratarás con respeto, y tratarás a tu papa con respeto también. Y me obedecerás. ¿Me entiendes?” (I am your Godfather, Johnny. You will treat me with respect; just as you will treat your father with respect. And you will obey me. Do you understand?) The caress became a small slap; just enough of a smack to drive the point home.
“Si, Tío, te entiendo.” (I understand, Tío.) Johnny’s voice was filled with the proper amount of remorse; more importantly, the words came with respect. Unable any longer to meet the man’s gaze, he turned his head, seeking out his father. “Barranca,” he breathed. “When do I get Barranca back?”
Murdock lifted the cigarillo to his lips, hiding the smile at his son’s gall. The patriarch swung his eyes to Cipriano, seeing in the man’s dark eyes a willingness to yield to his old friend, a gesture Murdoch appreciated but felt was unnecessary. He truly wanted Cip to treat Johnny no differently than he treated his own son’s, Mateo and Paco. And Cip was a very strict father. “That, Johnny, is up to your uncle. When he decides the time is appropriate, and not one day before.”
Madre de Cristo. Johnny risked a look at his uncle and had the sinking feeling that the appropriate time was going to be somewhere in his distant future. He had a brief flash of himself at age fifty riding under the Lancer arch at a walk aboard a balding palomino with a swayed back, his father flanking him on one side; Cip on the other.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was deep within the tin-roofed lean-to beside the barn. It was twilight, that quiet time between sunset and moonrise. He was muttering to himself, rooting around in the scattering of kindling wood that littered the raised plank floor.
“Here.” Scott approached his brother from the right. He was holding out a pair of leather work gloves.
The brunet reached out. “Thanks.” He took his time working the leather into place, lacing his fingers together to push them snug against his palms; wincing a bit as he realized that he’d already acquired a few splinters.
“You’re sulking,” Scott observed. Pulling his own gloves from his belt, he repeated his brother’s movements.
“Am not!” Johnny shot back. He bent down and began picking up the loose kindling; gathering the sticks of wood in the crook of his left arm. His father had wasted no time in dispensing a new list of chores and setting him to them.
Scott began picking up similar pieces of wood to the ones his brother was collecting. “So besides bringing in wood for Maria, and kindling for the box in the Great Room, what else has our father decided you need to do to stay out of mischief?”
Johnny was indeed sulking. His lower lip was jutting out, the familiar petulance coming and making the youth look even younger than his nineteen years. It was, Scott thought, as if someone had taken his favorite toy away from him. “Oh,” he breathed, thinking of Barranca.
It was as if the younger man hadn’t heard the soft ‘Oh’. Johnny began ticking off the list of new chores Murdoch had imposed; all of them intended to keep him pretty much home bound. “Startin’ tomorrow, I get to clean up this shit hole and restack all the wood every one’s been tossin’ in here for the last twenty-fucking-five years,” he griped. “Then I get to start workin’ on splittin’ that wagon load of wood Paco and Frank hauled down from the mill. Then, if I don’t drop dead or chop a foot off, there’s the corral fence that needs paintin’…”
Scott had laid down the wood he had selected and was rummaging around in the corner nearest the door. Stooping over, he picked up a piece of crumbled-up canvas; holding it out arms length, he shook it out. Motes of dust and debris filled the air; the small wood chips becoming bits of gold in the last rays of the setting sun. Satisfied the tote was reasonably clean; he spread it out on the floor. “We can stack the kindling on this,” he instructed, “carry it between us back to the house. That way, we should be able to take care of it in one trip.”
Johnny gave a single nod; appreciating his elder brother’s thinking. He dumped the wood he had been holding into the center of the square; grinning as Scott began to arrange it in some semblance of order. The smile just quickly disappeared. “I need to ask you somethin’,” he said.
Surprised, Scott pulled himself erect. He resisted the urge to tease his brother about the book. “Ask away,” he said giving his sibling his full attention.
There was a moment of silence as the younger man considered his next words. “About this mornin’; the Old Man,” he cheeks colored, “pullin’ me into the bath room. How come this mornin’?”
Scott’s right eyebrow arched slightly, a twinge of guilt coming. He had just asked Murdoch a very similar question; before he left the house to look for his brother. “As opposed to all the times he did nothing but threaten you?” he asked.
Johnny was toying with a small spar, tearing the wood into smaller and smaller strips. “Yeah.”
The blond had begun piling wood into the tote again. “He said he felt it wouldn’t be fair,” he said. When he looked at his brother he was smiling. “Your arm; the fact Sam was so insistent about keeping your arm bound to your chest until the stitches came out. Murdoch said it was like fighting someone who had one hand tied behind their back; and it wouldn’t be right to not give you the opportunity to fight back.” The smile grew. “You did manage to get in a few rather admirable licks before he scrubbed out your mouth.”
“Gonna bite him, he ever tries it again,” Johnny muttered.
Scott would have laughed if a picture of Johnny actually doing the deed hadn’t suddenly assaulted his brain. He watched as his brother added more kindling to the stack. “Wouldn’t it be easier,” he suggested, “if you just quit cursing?”
Johnny laughed. “Aw, Hell, Scott. What would be the fun in that?” The stack of split wood was growing and he used his boot to toe the pieces he had just put down closer to the center. He grew pensive again.
“Another question, brother?” Scott asked gently. He continued loading the sling.
The brunet nodded. “How come, since I apologized to Cip like the Old Man told me, I ain’t got Barranca back, and I’m stuck with a shit load of extra chores?”
Scott was surprised by the query and it showed in his face. “It’s called punishment, Johnny; an age-old concept. You break the rules, you bear the consequences. It’s intended to teach you to avoid making the same mistake twice.” He reached out, laying his right hand on his brother’s left shoulder; intending to hold the younger man in place if he attempted to buck. “We agreed when we signed the partnership paper, Johnny. Murdoch calls the tune. I know you understand the logic of consequences: I think you learned that lesson particularly well when you decided to take on Pardee on your own without telling us what you were planning; and almost died,” he felt Johnny tense beneath his fingers and held on.
“You are fully aware that Murdoch doesn’t approve of your cursing -- he’s told you often enough exactly what he feels about your language -- and I can’t believe you’d be foolish enough to think he, or Cip, were going to continue to tolerate your swearing or your impudence.” He let go of his brother; but not before giving his shoulder a sharp pat. “My advice, little brother, is if you want to avoid a ‘shit-load of extra chores’, you pay close attention to what Murdoch and Cip tell you, and do what you’re told.” He saw the argument forming. “I can find it in the book for you, you know,” he joshed, poking his sibling in the ribs with a rigid forefinger. “It’s right under ‘Respecting Your Elders’. Which, by the way,” he continued, smiling, “includes this elder.” He used the same finger he had just poked his brother with to thump his own chest.
Johnny responded in Spanish, under his breath. “We gonna take this up to the house, or what?” he snapped, pointing at the now full canvas tote.
Scott simply nodded, bending to pick up the handle on his side of the canvas. Together, the full sling between them, they headed towards the house.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was outside, sitting on the long bench beside the side door of the kitchen, lounging back against the wall, his long legs stretched out comfortably in front of him; his pipe firmly clenched in his teeth at the corner of his mouth. He watched as his sons came across the courtyard from beside the barn, smiling as he realized they were bickering. Johnny, even with one hand lugging the wood-filled tote, was the more animated of the two. Stetson shoved well down on his forehead and hiding his eyes, he was gesticulating wildly with his right hand, as if attempting to make a point. In contrast, Scott’s hat was shoved back, his expression one of bemused exasperation, and he was shaking his head.
The big Scot rose up, intending to join his sons when the sounds of two horses approaching from the arch drew his immediate attention. He changed direction slightly, heading for the front portico, and waved in greeting. “Jess! Reese!”
Jess Simmons pulled up in front of the hitching rail. The same age as Murdoch, the rancher was similar in build, although a few inches shorter. Not quite as nimble as his son, Reese, it took him a little time to dismount. “Murdoch,” he greeted, extending his hand. He automatically handed off the reins to his son.
“A week night, Jess. I’m surprised to see you!” It was Wednesday, a rare time for any neighbor to come calling; even more so for Jess Simmons, who reserved his weekends for socializing. He gestured towards the front door. “Come in; both of you.”
Reese Simmons had tied off both animals. A taller version of his father, the young man was only slightly older than Scott; and they had become friends. “Actually, Mr. Lancer, I was hoping I could convince Scott to ride into town with me.” He smiled at the older man before cutting his eyes to his father. “It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve been off the ranch, and Dad’s decided I need a break from the twins.” he said.
Murdoch cocked his head, an easy smile coming. The Simmons twins, Ned and Tim, were the same age as Johnny. They were also prone to the same kind of mischief Johnny enjoyed, and both Reese and his father had their hands full. “That might be arranged,” he said cordially. He nodded in the direction of his sons. “Between his regular chores and Johnny’s illness and recovery, Scott hasn’t seen much of town, either.”
The elder Simmons laughed. He watched as the Lancer boys made their approach; aware Johnny was engaged in a one-sided argument with his elder brother. At Murdoch’s request, Aggie Conway had passed the word on about Johnny’s back injury, and the rancher had visited the first week end after the boy’s accident. “It is good to see John on his feet,” he said.
Murdoch smiled. “Yes,” he said. “He’s going to be on his feet for awhile,” he observed. When he saw the look of puzzlement on his friend’s face, he offered up an explanation. “Johnny had words with his uncle. Cip’s sent Barranca up to the north pasture with the remuda.”
Jess Simmons had taken out his own pipe and was lighting up. He took several pulls on the pipe before he spoke. “And he won’t ride any other?” he asked.
“Boys!” Murdoch called to his sons; jabbing a long finger in the direction of the kitchen door. “Not if he has a choice,” he said, turning back to his friend. His next words were for Reese; who was still patiently standing next to his father. “Let’s go into the house. Scott will join us there once he’s made sure Johnny gets out of the kitchen alive.”
Reese exchanged a look with his father, and both men laughed. “Maria,” he said knowingly. He stood back to let his father cross the threshold and then followed the two older men inside. “Scott’s told me she’s pretty deadly with her spoon.”
Murdoch had stepped down into the Great Room. “She needs a new one,” he laughed. “She broke hers this evening when she got after Johnny for teasing Teresa, and swearing.” He went directly to the drink table. “Bourbon?” he asked.
“Make mine a double, please.” Scott entered the room. He was taking off his gloves. “Teresa is supervising the wood stacking,” he explained. “Good evening, sir,” he said, nodding to Jess Simmons. “Reese.”
The dark-eyed, young rancher was smiling. He had removed his Stetson, and was holding it by the brim. “I was hoping you’d be free to make a ride into Green River.” The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled. “Val told me the last time I was in town he was going to let Ty Underwood handle things on week nights. I figured we might be able to talk our sheriff and some of the boys into a friendly game of poker.”
Reese was lying through his teeth, and Scott knew it. He also knew why. Francis Clancy, proud owner of the Silver Dollar, had recently hired a new working girl; a petite little auburn-haired beauty name Rachel Fairchild. Word had spread among the ranch hands that the mysterious southern belle was doing nothing more than hustling drinks and gambling with the men at the gaming tables. She was, they claimed, an extremely talented gambler; but no one had found out if her gaming skills were any indication of her talents in bed. Yet.
Scott turned to his father; who had poured a half-measure of bourbon for him. “Sir?” he asked.
Murdoch gave his eldest son a long look, his mouth twitching as he tried to look stern. It was a good half-hour ride into Green River, and the sun had already set. “Morning comes early, Scott,” he reminded.
The blond smiled. “I plan on playing poker, sir,” he saw Reese’s sudden grin at the double-entendre, “not drinking to excess.” To make his point, he finished his drink and turned the glass upsides down on the drink tray.
Jess Simmons had just downed his own drink. “I remember a time or two, Murdoch,” he ribbed, “when we painted the town red and still put in a full day of work.”
The tall Scot snorted. “Thank you, Jess. And you’ve come why?” He was smiling when he said the words.
“Reverend Taylor has just given notice he’s going to be leaving us,” the other man answered. “He’s been offered a teaching position at the Seminary in Sacramento.
“We need to discuss a time for a meeting with the Church board. Green River’s growing, and I think it’s time we look for a minister that will be full time, not someone who’s dividing their time between congregations in Green River, Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells; maybe someone qualified to teach. It would be a good thing to have a school in Green River again.”
Realizing his eldest was still waiting, Murdoch turned to him. “Well, what are you waiting for, son?”
Scott’s smile was instantaneous. “Thank you, sir,” He nodded a good bye to both men and headed for the hallway; Reese Simmons at his side.
Johnny, his arms full of the larger kindling used in the Great Room, met his brother in the hall. “Hey!” he called. “Where you goin’?”
Scott was already at the door. “Into town with Reese,” he answered. He grabbed for his holster and secured it around his waist.
Surprised, Johnny turned slightly, backing away from his brother as he headed for the Great Room. There was no way he was going to pass up a ride into town; not after how long he’d been laid up. And especially not on a week night; the Old Man was pretty damned stingy about play time during the work week. “Just let me get this dumped,” he said, lifting his arms slightly to display the kindling, “and I’ll be right with you, brother!” He kept walking backwards, almost losing his balance as he misstepped and dropped down into the Great Room.
Reese shot a look at Scott. “Please tell me he isn’t coming?” he begged. One of Johnny was every bit as bad as one set of twins.
“No,” Scott answered. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Johnny!” Murdoch quickly crossed the room, reaching out with both arms to catch his son before he hit the floor.
Johnny dropped the kindling. “Shit!” He dropped down on his haunches and hurriedly began picking up the pieces of split wood.
Murdoch tapped his son on the shoulder. “We have company, John,” he announced, helping the young man to his feet.
Jess Simmons nodded in greeting as Johnny half-turned. “Good evening, Johnny,” he smiled. With his pipe, he pointed to the assortment of chopped wood at the younger man’s feet. “Do you need a hand with that, son?” he asked.
Johnny’s cheeks flushed. “No, sir,” he answered. He turned to his father. “It’s Wednesday. How come Scott’s goin’ to town?” he asked.
“Because it’s been a long time since your brother has had the opportunity,” Murdoch answered; no small amount of amusement in his voice. He nodded to the scattered kindling and the bits of dirt and bark littering the floor. “You need to stack that in the wood box, son. And then you’re going to need to get a broom and clean up the mess.”
The younger man’s face clouded. “But how am I gonna catch up with Scott?” he asked.
Jess Simmons had just taken a long puff on his pipe. He choked, tears coming as he waved Murdoch away. “Drink,” he coughed.
Murdoch quickly refilled his friend’s glass. And then he turned to his youngest. “The last thing you need to worry about now, Johnny, is catching up with your brother.” When he saw the belligerent pout, he pointed to the wood box beside the hearth. “Stack,” he ordered.
Johnny didn’t move. Murdoch bent down, regretting the move immediately as his back protested; but he still managed to pick up a single piece of firewood. He handed it to his son. “Now,” he ground out, his teeth clenching against the pain.
There was something in his father’s voice that prompted Johnny to immediately take the proffered piece of kindling; that, and the look in Murdoch’s eyes. As if his father were contemplating murder most foul.
Murdoch stalked over to one of the blue over-stuffed chairs, easing himself down; smiling in gratitude as Jess Simmons handed him a tumbler of Taliskers. Both men watched covertly as Johnny scooped up the scattered kindling. Jess Simmons was the first one to speak, his voice low; feeling a need to keep the words quiet. “He’s in trouble?”
The Scot laughed. “He’s like the twins, Jess. When isn’t he in trouble?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I left Johnny and Scott to tend to the bookkeeping while I took care of some business. Johnny decided to leave, and when Cip stopped him, he became rather belligerent.” He sighed. “He’s been a handful since he recovered.”
Jess Simmons was nodding. He understood exactly what his friend was saying. “Testing,” he said. “That’s what the twins do constantly. Sometimes…” he put down his glass and made a strangling motion with his hands.
Murdoch decided it was time to change the subject. “Have you spoken to the other members of the church board?” he asked. “Has Reverend Taylor made any suggestions?” He rose up from the chair, going to his desk for more tobacco. He cast a covert glance in the direction of the fireplace, watching as Johnny began to stack the wood. “Johnny,” he called, his voice rising. When the younger man turned to face him, he gestured towards the wood box. “That wood has been split into the proper size to stack neatly in the box, son.” He was rewarded with a peevish pout.
Jess Simmons was still seated. He had taken a tin of cigars out of his vest pocket, and was selecting a smoke. When Murdoch came back to the blue chairs, the rancher bent forward and accepted a light; watching as Murdoch used the same match to light his pipe. “Reverend Taylor gave us two names,” he said; puffing on his smoke. “Both of them are qualified to teach.”
There was a noise from beside the fireplace as Johnny stood up and made a big production out of dusting off his hands and his britches. “Done,” he said.
Murdoch craned his neck to look at the wood box, which was now full. The lengths of wood were neatly piled; the rear of the stack slightly higher than the front. He nodded his approval. “There is still that mess on the floor by the door,” he reminded.
Visibly, Johnny wilted. He was shaking his head. Knowing it was useless, he stomped out of the room, headed for the kitchen.
Jess Simmons was chuckling. “You do know that once he gets that,” he pointed to the littered floor, “cleaned up, he’s going to tell you he’s going to town.”
Murdoch snorted. “Then he’s in for a big surprise,” he declared.
As if on cue, Johnny reappeared at the door, broom and dustpan in hand. He made short work of the job; carrying the debris over to the fireplace, carefully dumping it inside the firebox. Both men watched as he fairly scurried towards the hallway, disappeared, and just as quickly came back. “Done,” he said. “Goin’ to town.” He turned on heel and headed for the outer door.
The younger man skidded to a complete stop, his father’s voice as effective as the placement of a hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes. Resigned, he turned around and headed back into the Great Room. He stood in the doorway, one hand on each side of the curved wooden frame, half-in, half-out of the door. “Yeah?” he muttered.
Murdoch withdrew the pipe from his mouth. Not only did he not like his son’s tone, he didn’t much care for the attitude. “You are not going to town, young man,” he announced.
Johnny’s brow knotted. “Why not?”
The tall Scot eyed his youngest. Because it’s too soon after your recovery, because you’re being punished, because your brother needs some time away from you. The many reasons played unspoken across the older man’s tongue. Aloud, he said the one phrase parents always used and young people hated. “Because I said so.”
Visibly, the younger man bristled at the words. What the hell kind of reason is that? he fumed, ‘because I said so’? “You let Scott go,” he argued.
Murdoch rolled his eyes. Behind him, he could hear Jess Simmons chuckling. “John, go to your room.” When his son remained standing in the door way, he lowered his voice. “I’m getting very tired…”
The words slipped out of the younger man’s mouth before he could stop them; water falling across his tongue with a will of their own. “Well, if you’re so tired, Old Man, maybe you should go to your room.” Oh shit! Shit, shit, shit! He found himself rooted to the spot.
It was as if a great storm cloud had gathered within the now gloomy interior of the Great Room; massive bundles of undischarged lightening roiling above the Lancer patriarch’s head. The man’s mouth quirked downward in a harsh frown, the flesh beneath his right eye twitching. In two swift strides he was in front of his son. The next long stride carried them both to the bottom of the stairs. To help his son along, Murdoch swatted the young man solidly on the rear end.
“Jesus H. Christ, Murdoch!” the younger man shouted, rubbing his hind end. He was between rubs when the second swat landed. This one lifted him up on his tip-toes. He debated making a run for the door; unfortunately Mount Murdoch was blocking his way.
Turning around, he bolted up the stairs.
Jess Simmons was waiting with a tumbler of Taliskers when Murdoch stepped down into the Great Room. He was smiling, watching as the big man shook away the sting in his right palm. “Now you know why I favor a belt or a doubled-over lead rope,” he grinned.
Murdoch reached out, taking the proffered tumbler of Scotch. “It wouldn’t be so bad if his head wasn’t as hard as his rear end,” he growled. “I’ve never known anyone as stubborn as that boy!”
Loud laughter erupted from Jess Simmons, his eyes watering. “Please,” he snorted. Seeing the frown on his friend’s face, he quickly relented. “I think,” he proposed, “and the other members of the board I’ve spoken with agree, that we should invite both ministers to Green River. Spend the time to question them on their beliefs, discuss their philosophical interpretations of church canon, and then have them speak before the congregation.”
His head canted, Murdoch listened to the other man. He nodded. “I’d like Scott to participate in the discussions, Jess.”
Jess was inhaling the last of his cigar. “He’s young, Murdoch; younger than any other man on serving on the board.”
Murdoch nodded. “And well educated,” he countered. He looked across to his friend. “The average age of our board members -- of the six men that are currently serving -- is seventy-six, Jess; and some of those men are not in the best health. I’m proposing we bring in some younger people to attend meetings as alternates. I think Scott would be a good addition, as would Reese. And it wouldn’t hurt to start including the ladies.”
Simmons was quiet a brief moment; stroking his chin with his hand. “Aggie,” he said finally. “Aggie Conway.” He turned to face the tall rancher again. “She’s been active since she and Henry first arrived in the valley; before we built the church and the parsonage.”
Murdoch nodded. “We’ll call an official meeting after services on Sunday. I’ll get word to Aggie, and I’ll make sure Scott is in attendance.”
The large Grandfather clock began tolling the hour: ten p.m. “It might be a wise idea to stay, Jess. Go home in the morning.” He sweetened the deal. “Maria makes churros on Thursdays.”
In spite of the offer, Jess Simmons shook his head. “There’s a full moon tonight, Murdoch. It will be a pleasant ride.” He down his glass. “Sunday,” he said.
Murdoch nodded. “Right after services.” He began rubbing his right arm with his left.
Simmons’ expression changed; a slight frown forming. “What are we going to do with Johnny and the twins during the meeting?” he asked.
“Hobble them,” Murdoch answered. He was laughing when he made the declaration.
Jess Simmons joined in the laughter. Then, his face taking on a worried expression, he spoke up. “I forgot to mention it when I first came in. The man I had riding fence on that strip of line up on the Ribbon… he told me this afternoon that the Creek is down to little more than a trickle; not even fetlock deep where it makes the bend and runs parallel to the property line. I’m going to send Reese and the boys up to check it out in the morning; thought maybe you’d like to send a crew, too.”
Murdoch nodded. The source of the Ribbon was on Lancer land, but the small river followed the path nature had created. At several points on the lower slopes, the water changed course, snaking throughout the canyons to flow through both Lancer and Simmons’ pastureland. There had never been any question of interfering with the flow: sharing the water had been a given, and both men felt a mutual responsibility to keep the creek maintained. “I’ll send Scott and Johnny,” he said.
Together, the two men walked to the front door. For a time, Murdoch stood watching as Jess headed towards the corral, Cipriano’s son Mateo, opening the gate for the man. There was, Murdoch thought, excellent light and the air was comfortably cool. Twenty years ago he would have joined his friend; would have ridden with him to his front gate, and then made the ride back home, just for the joy of being out in the open. Twenty years ago… He shook his head.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott Lancer was sitting at the felt covered poker table, Reese Simmons at his right, Val Crawford on his left, and directly across from him; Rachel Fairchild. The woman, clad in an emerald green gown considerably more discrete than the dresses the other women were wearing, was studying her cards. Her decision made, she selected two from opposite, and put them down. “I’ll take two,” she drawled. She lifted her left hand to push a stray curl away from her green eyes.
Val dealt out the cards. “Reese?” he asked. “Scott?”
“I’ll hold,” the blond answered.
Reese Simmons was staring at the dwindling stack of coins at his right elbow. “I’ll fold,” he muttered. He put down his cards and shoved back his chair. Standing up, he picked up his Stetson, and headed for the bar.
Val, leaning back in his chair, dealt himself two cards; read them, and then threw down his cards. It was now between Scott and the young woman.
Using two fingers, Scott shoved a five dollar gold piece towards the center of the table. “I’m in,” he said, smiling at the woman.
Auburn eyelids fluttering, Rachel returned the smile. “And I’ll raise,” she murmured. She pushed a pair of coins across the green felt.
Feeling sure of himself, Scott added two coins to the ones that had been sitting in front of him, piling them into a stack as he shoved them forward. “I’ll see your raise, plus ten more.”
The woman’s right eyebrow rose ever so slightly. For two hours, she had been playing poker with this quiet young man; carefully watching him. Unlike other men she had gambled with, this one was an enigma. He betrayed nothing; his expression always the same, almost benign. “And I’ll call,” she breathed, matching him coin for coin.
Scott laid out his cards; a queen high, straight heart flush. There was an audible gasp from the other side of the table as Rachel Fairchild lay down her cards and fanned them out: four deuces.
Val Crawford let out a soft whistle; watching as Scott raked in the pot. “You keep this up, Boston, you can give up ranchin’ and take up cards full time,” he laughed.
The blond was shaking his head. “And give up the pleasure of working side by side with my little brother? I think not!”
Crawford scratched his chin, watching as Rachel Fairchild stood up and made her way over to the bar. The woman had taken a deck of cards from her bodice, and was shuffling them; drawing a bit of a crowd. “So where is he?” he asked. “Doc said he was up and about. I thought by now I’d see him here in town.”
Scott laughed. “So far -- since his recovery -- my little brother has managed to get his mouth washed out with soap, Maria’s spoon broken across his rear-end, Barranca turned out with the remuda, and -- because of some rather insolent behavior towards Cip -- assigned a whole ‘shit load of extra chores’. ” He sighed. “Johnny was planning on following Reese and I into town, but I doubt that Murdoch let that happen.” There was a moment’s hesitation before he said the next. “You know that Johnny’s hasn’t reached his majority,” he ventured. “Sam told him how old he was, and Johnny didn’t believe him.”
Val snorted. “No surprise there,” he ground out. “And, yeah, I know how old the kid is. He never believed me, either.” He had known Johnny almost the boy’s entire life; something Scott and Murdoch didn’t know, although they had surmised there was a past relationship. When he saw the question forming, he raised his hand. “Told you before, Scott. It’s Johnny’s story. He’ll tell you when he’s ready.”
Tight-lipped, Scott nodded. Val Crawford could be every bit as stubborn and as evasive about the past as Murdoch Lancer. “Miss Fairchild,” he said, changing the subject; nodding in the woman’s direction. Loud laughter had just erupted from the bar. “She still withholding her dainty treasures from the clientele?”
Crawford was slouched back in his chair; toying with the empty glass that was sitting in front of him. “‘Dainty treasures’,” he echoed. “You sure have a way with words, Boston.” He grinned across at the younger man. “She makes more hustlin’ drinks and playin’ cards in one night than most of these little doves,” he nodded in the general direction of the cluster of women who were watching what was going on at the bar, “make in a month.
“When she does give it up, it’s goin’ to be expensive,” he observed knowingly.
“Does make a man wonder if it will be worth it,” Scott countered. Picking his Stetson up from the table, he shoved back his chair. “I’m going to see what’s happening over there,” he said, rising up from his chair; curiosity getting the best of him.
Val waved him away. “Tell the boy I said ‘hey’ when you get home,” he ordered.
Scott gave a backwards wave to the lawman and headed directly for the bar.
The young woman was cutting cards with the locals. There was a substantial amount of silver stacked in front of her. She had just won another bet and was holding up her card; the ace of diamonds.
“How’s she doing?” Scott shouldered his way through the crowd to stand next to Reese Simmons.
Reese cocked his head. He reached up, smoothing his mustache before answering. His dark eyes were dancing. “She’s managed to hold her own,” he said softly. Picking up his hat from the bar, he nodded towards the stairs. “I’m going to take care of some business,” he said, smiling. “While I still have some money left!”
Scott turned back to the bar; casually resting his elbows on the well-polished length of dark mahogany. Reaching out, he fingered the faded initials that had been carved into the wood amid dozens of others; smiling a bit as he recognized not only his father’s initials, but Jess Simmons. He tried to imagine the two older men as they would have been in their youth; in that time when the country was still young and they were building up their ranches.
“You look like a man with something on his mind, Mister Lancer,” the sweet voice whispered. The woman smiled, displaying a row of perfect teeth. There was a finger-tip sized dimple in her chin, just at the left hand corner of her mouth.
Immediately, Scott doffed his hat, placing it on the bar at his elbow. The blue-gray eyes were twinkling. “Just thinking of a poem,” he said. He always thought of poetry when he was around a clever woman.
She canted her head, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Poetry, or a little bit of doggerel,” she teased. Her eyes narrowed, a bit of a smile coming. “Boston,” she breathed. “Perhaps a little sea-faring ditty…”
Scott returned the woman’s smile. He pointed to the small, velveteen purse she had laid on the bar. “It appears you’ve had more luck here at the bar, than at the tables,” he observed. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out a gold piece. “Perhaps you can teach me the game you’ve been playing with the other gentlemen?”
The woman’s smile grew. She was new in town, but she had heard of the Lancer brothers; the oh-so-proper Bostonian and the younger, wilder pistolero. Heirs to a vast estancia. “Perhaps,” she drawled. Reaching into the front of her low cut dress, she withdrew the deck of cards; carefully untying the faded blue ribbon that had secured the cards. “Would you care to shuffle?”
“No, Miss Fairchild,” he answered, the words coming softly. “Your deck, your deal.” Using his forefinger, he pushed the gold coin closer to her purse.
Skillfully, the woman began manipulating the cards. She placed them on the bar, using her thumbs to fan out the edges, the backs curving as she pushed them together. Three times she riffled the cards, bringing them together in a neat stack. Coyly, she tapped the top of the deck with the middle finger of her right hand. “High card wins,” she smiled. “You first.”
Obligingly, Scott picked up the first cards; less than half the deck. “Queen of Hearts,” he grinned.
Rachel nodded; her right eyebrow arching. She hesitated, the long nail of her forefinger tapping against her chin as if she were debating. Still unsure, she fingered the cards, rippling the deck before making her selection. “Ace of Clubs,” she crowed.
Three more times, they repeated the little charade. Dealing for the fifth time, the woman slapped the deck down on the bar.
“Ladies first,” Scott murmured, moving in a bit closer.
The woman canted her head. She repeated the same moves she had made earlier. “Oh,” she grinned. “King of spades.”
Scott was fingering the deck. In the few short months he had been at Lancer, he had earned his share of calluses, in spite of the gloves he always wore. But the insides of his fingers were as smooth as a drawing room dandy’s. Smiling, he allowed his right hand to rest atop the deck, his middle finger making a circuit; one side of the deck, then the other. Finally, his decision made, he drew his card. “Ace of diamonds,” he breathed without even looking. They had been playing double or nothing.
Rachel’s eyes widened; her mouth quirking up into an amused smile. “Why, Mr. Scott Lancer,” she drawled softly, “I do believe you’ve played this game before.”
Scott picked up the cards, neatly shuffling them before laying them dead center on the blue ribbon. He drew the ends up, nodding towards the cards and watching as the woman delicately placed her forefinger on the place where he had just pulled the first knot tight. Adeptly, he formed a perfect bow. “Many times,” he smiled. He picked up the deck of cards and handed it to her.
“Your winnings, sir,” she whispered, reaching up to toy with the top button of his shirt.
The woman’s fingers were warm; he could sense the heat even through his shirt. “Perhaps you could suggest another game,” he teased.
Her laughter was genuine. “I have another deck of cards in my room,” she smiled. “Perhaps it’s time for a fresh deck.”
Scott scooped up the coins from the bar. He debated just handing them to her and then discretely put them back in his pocket. “After you, Miss Fairchild,” he said.
Val Crawford watched from his place in the far corner of the room. He had been observing the little game at the bar, and watched now as Scott Lancer followed Rachel Fairchild up the stairs. Yep, he thought, taking a long drink. Johnny was right. Old Boston certainly had a way with the ladies…
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The woman’s room was tidy and surprisingly clean. Scott lifted his hat slightly; waiting for an invitation to put it down.
“Anywhere but on the bed,” the woman said softly. “Last time someone put a hat on the bed in my room, the Yankees took the city.”
Scott was slightly taken aback, not sure if the auburn-haired vixen was teasing. “I swear it wasn’t me,” he said, raising his right hand.
“I hope not,” she retorted. “If it was, I’d have to kill you.” The drawl was even more pronounced. She was smiling. “You knew about the deck of cards,” she said, suddenly serious.
He hung his hat on one of the bedposts at the foot of the bed. “Excellent job of marking them,” he praised. It was true; the small, infinitesimal notches along the edges were almost undetectable. Four sides to the deck each representing a suit, a series of coded indentations to represent the highest cards, plus two, four and eight; assuring the occasional loss to lead a patsy on.
“My Daddy,” she said; something wistful in the words. Just as quickly, she brightened. “New Orleans up the River to St. Louis and beyond.” Her shoulders straightened; the pride evident. “Kept me and Mama in a fine style in Natchez, ‘til the War.” She sighed.
Scott had heard his share of stories from women of the night; on two continents. “Rachel,” he started. He reached out, cupping her chin in his palm. When she turned his gaze to meet his, he knew she wasn’t lying. “You said you had another deck of cards,” he prompted with his usual gallantry; offering both of them a way out.
She had picked up a fan from the bedside stand. She flicked it open, the silk rustling a bit as she waved it in front of her lips; her auburn eyelashes fluttering. “Foolish boy,” she laughed.
He kissed her; full on the mouth, and was rewarded a returned kiss that was full of passion. There was a flurry of activity as they both shed their clothes.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was sitting at the breakfast table; on time and not in the best of moods. His father had caught him attempting to leave the house after everyone else had gone to bed, and the confrontation had not been pleasant. He figured, when it was all over with, that he had a good five years more worth of extra chores. If he worked twenty-four/seven. Sipping his coffee, he looked up, watching as his brother came into the room.
Scott was looking remarkably refreshed. He was also carrying a box; several inches long, carefully wrapped, with a red rose stuck into the ribbon. He pulled out his chair and sat down. “Our father giving points for showing up early?” he teased, smiling at his younger brother.
The brunet was in no mood for his brother’s shitty sense of humor. “You have a good time last night, brother?” he asked. It was clear from his tone he really didn’t give a damn.
“I’m assuming a better time than you had,” Scott replied, recognizing his brother’s disposition.
Both brothers looked up as Murdoch strode into the room. “Boys,” he greeted. He studied both young men, taking note of their demeanor; which was, right now, as different from night and day. He took his customary seat at the head of the table.
Teresa had just entered the kitchen from the patio door, a cloth-covered pitcher of fresh cold milk in her right hand. As usual, she seemed to bounce into the room; far too bubbly for so early in the morning as far as Johnny was concerned. He frowned up at her. “Ants in your pants?” he asked.
“And good morning to you, Johnny Lancer!” she snapped back; putting the container of milk on the far side of the table, next to Scott’s elbow. She spied the package. “For me?” she chirped.
Scott shook his head. “No,” he answered. He picked up the box. “It’s for Maria,” he smiled.
The older woman had just come through the door, carrying a platter filled with bowls and plates of hot food. She set the large serving dish in the middle of the table, her face registering surprise when the eldest Lancer son stood up, bowed slightly, and presented her with the wrapped box. “Para usted, señora,” (For you, señora) he smiled, his pale eyes dancing.
Johnny watched with interest as the woman began untying the ribbon. Carefully, she placed the rose on the table; and then unwrapped the box. The smile lit up her entire face, easing the wrinkles, her dark eyes lighting with humor. Carefully, she withdrew the trio of graduated wooden spoons from the box, displaying them for everyone before laying them down next to the rose. Digging into the bottom of the container, she withdrew the final piece: a long, three inch wide intricately worked trivet with a short but sturdy handle. It looked, Johnny thought, very much like a paddle. He shoved back his chair. “Real funny, big brother!” he snapped, standing up.
Murdoch’s smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. “Sit down!” he ordered.
The brunet debated. He was about to bolt when Maria repeated the order. “¡Siéntese, niño!” (Sit down, boy.) She was waving the longest of the three spoons at him.
Johnny sat. Frowning, he watched as the housekeeper moved to Scott’s side of the table and gave his brother a light kiss on his right cheek. “Eres un chico bueno, Scott. Gracias.” (You are such a good boy, Scott. Thank you.)
Ass kisser, Johnny fumed. It didn’t help knowing that his brother, once again, was going to get the biggest serving of dessert come supper time.
Order restored, the meal progressed with a degree of normalcy. Maria had refilled all the coffee cups, and Teresa had excused herself to start cleaning up. Murdoch’s gaze turned to his eldest. “There’s going to be a special meeting of the church board after Sunday services, Scott. I’d like you to attend.”
Scott had just taken a drink of his coffee. While he was flattered by the offer -- he was well aware his father served on the board and understood the implication -- he was feeling a bit unworthy at the moment. He felt a warm flush creeping up the back of his neck and hoped it wasn’t spreading to his face. “May I ask why, sir?” he inquired, his tone neutral.
Murdoch nodded. “Reverend Taylor is leaving. We’re going to be interviewing two potential candidates for the post, and Jess and I have decided its time to bring in some alternates for the board. Reese Simmons is going to attend; and I’m riding over to Aggie Conway’s to see if she will be willing to serve as an alternate also.” When he saw Scott’s eyebrows raise slightly, he continued. “If the British Empire can be ruled by a woman,” he observed, “I’m sure it’s time the women in Green River should have some input.”
The blond nodded. “Agreed,” he said. “I’ll be there,” he promised. He took another drink of coffee, catching a glimpse of his younger brother over the rim of his cup.
Johnny was tipped back slightly in his chair, rocking back and forth as he balanced on the back legs. He was grinning. Murdoch had picked up the San Francisco newspaper, intent on an article that had caught his eye and was entirely caught up in his reading. Johnny shot a quick glance in his father’s direction, and then leaned forward in his chair. Elbows on the table, he raised his arms, making a fist with his left hand and using the forefinger of his right to make a quick in and out gesture as he shook his head in mock indignation.
Scott put down his cup. “About our work assignments this morning, sir,” he ground out.
Murdoch looked up; his gaze shifting from one son to the other. Carefully, he folded the newspaper and put it back on the table. “Jess Simmons mentioned last night that Ribbon Creek seems to be backed up just above our adjoining fence line. He’s sending Reese and a crew up there to see what’s causing the blockage. I think it’s something you and Johnny can work on as well.”
Johnny watched as his brother stood up. “Barranca’s still up in the north pasture,” he said.
“And?” Murdoch asked.
God, you got a real talent for askin’ stupid questions, Old Man, the youth thought. “Can’t work if I don’t have my horse,” he answered.
Murdoch had picked up the paper again; and was putting on his reading glasses. “John, we have over two hundred head of riding horses on this ranch,” he intoned. “Fifteen of them are out in the corral. Pick one.” The paper rattled as he straightened it out.
The argument was already forming when Scott reached across the table and tapped his brother’s shoulder. “Now,” he mouthed silently.
Johnny leaned back in his chair, his arms across his chest. He was still in a bad mood from last night. Hell, from the last couple of days. He wanted his horse. “I want Barranca,” he said stubbornly.
Murdoch never even looked up from the paper. “Don’t make me call Maria,” he threatened.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott Lancer and Reese Simmons stood shoulder to shoulder on the bank above the Ribbon. The creek bed narrowed at this particular point, the water siphoning into a place where -- some time in the distant past -- an earthquake had caused a violent upheaval of dark obsidian. Normally, the stream waterfalled several feet before cascading into a shallow pool. Now, however, there was no flow.
Reese raised his right arm, pointing. “You see that?” he asked, the surprise evident. Upstream, just where the Ribbon began to narrow, mounds of branches and scrub bisected the waterway; effectively damming the small river. Small trickles of water escaped over the newly created spillway.
The blond nodded. “I did a lot of camping in northern Maine,” he said. “Deep woods.” He reached up, taking off his hat; wiping away the sweat from the head band with the bandana he had just taken from his pocket. “Murdoch said something about how the beaver population here was pretty much decimated by the early trappers.”
There was a ruckus behind the two men and they both turned. “Johnny!” Scott called. He was shaking his finger. “Quit horsing around,” he admonished.
Johnny was on the ground, his right arm wrapped around Tim Simmons’ upper body. The two youths had been wrestling, Ned acting as referee. Scott’s yelling had interrupted the match; enough that Johnny was caught off guard. The next thing the youth knew, he was suddenly flipped on his back; Tim quickly standing up to grab him beneath both legs at the knees and tilt him up on his shoulders. Ned dropped to the ground and counted off.
“Goddammit, Scott!” The brunet scrambled up from the ground. He bent down briefly to pick up his hat; using the Stetson to swat at his pants. Behind him, the twins were clapping each other on the back and laughing. The next thing they knew, Johnny charged them; head down, and the battle was on.
Reese sighed and shook his head. He jerked his head in the direction of the tangle of arms and legs. “Shall we?” he asked.
Scott nodded. In less than a half dozen long strides both older men were across the clearing and wading in. Reese grabbed his brothers by the scruffs of their neck, the muscles in his shoulders and back tensing as he pulled both young men to their feet. The elder Lancer son was even more devious in his actions: reaching out, he grabbed a generous hank of his brother’s long hair and yanked.
Johnny reached up, both hands closing around his brother’s right wrist. “Jesus Fucking H. Christ!” he raged; the next curse dying on his lips as Scott tightened his grip. He let out a yelp; the sound similar to a pup being shaken by its irate sire. “C’mon, Scott…”
The blond waited patiently for his brother to settle down. It took a little time, but -- finally -- Johnny’s breathing returned to normal and he was still. Scott didn’t let go. “We came up here to work, little brother; not play,” he scolded gently.
Johnny looked everywhere but at his brother. A few feet away, Reese Simmons was having an intense discussion with his siblings. “Jesus, Scott,” he muttered. “You sound just like the Old Man.”
“Thank you,” Scott replied, finally turning the younger man loose. “We need to take a ride over to Mr. Bellingham’s,” he said.
Reese had joined the brothers. “Modoc Charlie’s?” he asked. His subdued siblings were now seated on a downed log; sitting -- at his orders -- more than an arms length from each other.
Scott nodded. “We could spend the afternoon pulling apart the lodges, Reese, but the beavers will just rebuild.” His pale eyes surveyed the rock strewn landscape. “The terrain here is too unstable to blast them out using dynamite.” He hesitated and then continued; certain of the proper course of action. “Mr. Bellingham has the experience in dealing with this, and I know he’ll provide us with the advice we need.”
“That man’s got to be older than God,” Reese murmured. “He’s not overly fond of my brothers,” he declared. When he saw the puzzled expression on Scott’s face, he continued. “It was before you and Johnny came home; hell, it was before all the trouble with Pardee. The twins raided his trap lines winter before last -- Murdoch actually caught them -- and Charlie made it pretty clear he wasn’t happy.” Reese grinned across at his friend. “He said he’d scalp them if he ever got his hands on them. I don’t think I want to explain that to my father if he wasn’t joking.”
The blond returned the smile. “Are you going to have children when you get married?” he asked suddenly.
It was Reese’s turn to be confused. “I haven’t thought about it. Marriage or kids. Why?”
Scott lowered his voice, his eyes on his younger brother. Johnny had gone over to where the black gelding he had been riding was tethered, and was now sneaking around the animal and heading for the log where -- backs to him -- the Simmons twins were still sitting. “Well, in your case, I understand twins run in the family,” he said, laughing. “As for myself, I have this unsettling feeling that -- should I ever make the plunge --” he nodded in Johnny’s direction, “…my brother would enjoy his role as an uncle way too much for my liking.” He reached out, tapping Reese’s arm.
Reese turned around just in time to Johnny make a flying leap at his brothers’ backs. “I knew this was going to be a long day,” he groused.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott led the way as they entered the clearing. Modoc Charlie was seated in a hide covered chair on the front porch; the Sharps within easy reach to his right. The wolf was lying at his feet; its head coming up suddenly as the two young men approached the hitching rail. There was something very protective in the wolf’s wary alertness, and it began to pant; its sides heaving.
“Mr. Bellingham,” Scott greeted. As he did the first time he had met the man, he remained mounted. He reached out to his brother when Johnny started to slide from his saddle without being invited; hanging on until his sibling reluctantly settled back in.
The surprise was evident in the older man’s face. Murdoch had warned him that Johnny would probably drop in uninvited in spite of orders to stay away; but he hadn’t expected to see the well-mannered, older son. “Does your father know you’re here?” he asked.
Leather creaked as Scott shifted in his saddle. “Yes, sir,” he answered. He chose not to elaborate.
Charlie’s face contorted in a pained grimace as the man forced a smile. He remained seated. “You’ll have to build your own coffee if you plan on staying,” he breathed.
It was obvious the older man was in pain. Scott nodded. “We can take care of the amenities, Mr. Bellingham.” He smiled. “I might even be able to convince Johnny to help prepare an early supper.”
Johnny’s gaze was fastened on Bellingham. It had been less than a week since their first visit with the old mountain man, but there had been a visible decline. Unbidden, a myriad of emotions swept through the younger man. There were a thousand questions he wanted to ask the old man about his father: and he was left with a feeling of urgency. The part of him he fought hard to keep separate from Madrid -- the miraculous piece of his soul that had remained untouched by the violence of his childhood -- caused him to reconsider. He threw his right leg over the saddle horn, and gracefully slid to the ground.
Bellingham used the Sharps as a crutch as he rose up from the chair. He led the way into the cabin; settling into the rocking chair. Again, the wolf settled protectively at his feet.
Scott had brought in his saddlebags. He opened the flap on the right-hand pouch, taking out a slim, leather bound volume. Instead of handing it directly to the old man, he simply placed on the table at his elbow. “It’s a new, revised copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,” he said gently.
Appreciatively, Bellingham reached out. “Revised,” he laughed; softly, as if it hurt. “You would have thought if he was so good, he would have gotten it right the first time.”
Johnny was snooping in Scott’s saddle bags. It was obvious that his sneaky big brother had been planning this side trip all along. A well-wrapped supply of canned goods from Maria’s kitchen had been carefully packed: brandied peaches, jars of chutney, tomatoes; along with tins of condensed milk. The opposite pack held a dozen cushioned eggs, and a small, smoked ham. There was also a large bottle of laudanum. “What’s this, brother?” he asked; lifting the meat.
“Supper,” Scott answered smugly.
Bellingham shifted a bit in his chair, eyeing the supplies; his expression easing as he spied the brown medicine bottle. “You boys planning on moving in?” he joked.
“No, sir,” Scott replied. “We need some help, Mr. Bellingham, and some information. This…” he gestured to the items Johnny had laid out on the table with an ambiguous wave of his hand… “is an unabashed bribe.” He sat about preparing the food.
Charlie’s right eye narrowed slightly. “We’re not going to talk about your father,” he said firmly.
Scott had gone to the dry sink to retrieve a heavy cast-iron skillet. “Trapping, Mr. Bellingham,” he announced. “We’re here to talk about trapping.”
Johnny sighed, audibly. Scott had been right about Murdoch and where he had gone. “Beavers,” he said. When Charlie turned to look up at him, he spoke again. “We were workin’ up on the Ribbon, lookin’ for whatever it was that was blockin’ the stream. We found beaver lodges, up at the narrows. Scott said if we tore ‘em down, the animals would just rebuild.”
The old man pushed himself up from the chair. Jaws tensing, he crossed the room to the table and picked up the bottle of laudanum. He took a healthy swig before replacing the cork. “Haven’t been beaver in this valley in more than twenty years,” he said quietly. “He’s right,” he uttered, his gaze settling on the younger brother. “Anything you would have torn down today would be back by this time tomorrow.” His brow furrowed slightly as he saw a slight knot on the younger man’s forehead. The drug was beginning to work and he was feeling better. “You get that,” he pointed, “trying to catch yourself some beaver?”
Johnny fingers went to his head, his face flushing. “Nope,” he answered. Suddenly inspired by what Scott had told him earlier, he piped up with more information. “Got it beatin’ the crap out of the Simmons twins.” It wasn’t too much of a stretch. He’d pounded both boys pretty good before Scott had pulled him off. All in fun, of course.
Charlie’s mouth turned down in an instant frown. “I catch those two around here, I’ll do more than beat them,” he threatened, his fingers drifting to the haft of his Bowie knife. Just as quickly, his mood changed. “In the lean-to,” he said. “I have everything you need. Which one of you is the swimmer?” he asked. He laughed as both young men raised their hands.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott remained behind in the cabin cleaning up after a supper of fried ham and scrambled eggs as Charlie led Johnny to the lean-to where he kept his gear. The log annex was in good repair, as was the cabin. An iron spike secured the latch, and the old man pulled it free. “Lantern beside the door,” he said, stepping inside.
Johnny groped in the darkness until his fingers closed around the kerosene lamp. He dug into his front pocket, taking out the small, round brass match holder. Turning the lid to the right, he dumped a single matchstick into his palm and used his thumbnail to ignite the sulfur tipped stick. There was a sound as he lifted the glass globe and a soft hiss as he touched the match to the damp wick. A circle of pale yellow light spread, pushing back the darkness as he hung the lantern from a chain and hook suspended from the low ceiling.
The walls of the small, tidy shed were hung with a collection of traps and snares; all in excellent condition. Johnny made the circuit of the room, the fingers of his right hand trailing lightly across the heavy metal. Hanging on the walls, the traps seemed almost innocuous; things of intricate beauty for their workmanship, and not at all deadly. Some, he recognized; were the large springed claw traps for bear and cougar. He turned to face the old man. “Which ones?” he asked.
“Over there,” the older man answered. He was pointing to a large hook.
Johnny followed the man’s pointing finger, going to the far inner corner of the shed. The traps were hanging suspended from one of the springing mechanisms. They were square in shape, an outer and inner frame topped by a pair of trigger wires; safety-pin shaped riggings at each side. He pulled them from the wall and looped them over his forearm; sliding them up to rest on his shoulder. “Anything else?” he asked.
Charlie Bellingham stood in the doorway; the setting sun at his back, little more than a dark silhouette framed by light. “You don’t like me much, do you, boy?” he asked.
The brunet’s head dipped slightly. He was at the disadvantage where he stood; his facial expressions fully visible beneath the light coming from the lantern. Bellingham’s face, because of where he was standing, was obscure. “Reckon the feelin’s mutual,” he said quietly, wishing he could see the older man’s face, his eyes.
Bellingham was deathly still. “I’ve no problem with you, Johnny,” he said softly. When the youth started to speak, he held his hand up to silence him. “I don’t like your manners or your mouth,” he declared. “You could learn from following your brother’s example.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah. That’s what the Old Man says.” It was a small lie; Murdoch rarely held Scott up as an example, although he could have. Many, many times.
“You’re father is a good man,” Bellingham responded, his tone sharp. “He deserves your respect.”
Johnny moved forward slightly, towards the door. “Gettin’ kind of tired of people tellin’ me that all the time,” he muttered, reminded of Cip’s words.
Bellingham remained where he was standing, effectively blocking the door. The laudanum was still working and -- free from the pain -- he felt himself strong and invincible. “Murdoch Lancer almost killed himself looking for you, boy. And he never stopped.” Even when he found out who and what you were.
There was a sound, a dull thud, as Johnny lifted his foot and suddenly dug his heel into the earthen floor. “Yeah.” He stared across at the older man. “And how hard did he look for my Mama?” he asked.
The older man backed away from the door; enough that his face was now bathed in light. “A lot harder than he should have,” he answered tersely. “You’re brother’s waiting,” he said.
Johnny wasn’t done. “Not as long as he waited in Boston!” he snapped. He hated it. That this old man knew more about his father than he and his brother knew; would probably ever know. And the old son-of-a-bitch was dying!
Bellingham reached out, grabbing Johnny’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” he said.
The younger man jerked away. “Maybe you should think on that, Old Man,” he snarled, “since you’re doin’ a pretty fuckin’ good job of passin’ judgment on me!”
Charlie was shaking his head. “I’m not judging you, boy. Just your foul mouth and your bad manners. If you plan on coming around here again, you need to know I won’t abide either.” He turned, and led the way towards the house.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Bellingham was at the table with Scott, listening as the older man explained the operation of the traps. “They’re called conibear traps,” he said. “You can bait them with fresh skinned wood; set them at the water’s edge.” he instructed, picking up one of the traps. “Run the stakes through here to hold them in place on either side,” he lifted one of the large springs; “then secure the trap on shore to another stake with wire.”
Scott was nodding. “You said something about swimming?”
“I always put them under water,” Bellingham answered, “just at the opening to the den. Helps hide the scent.”
Johnny was sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace. The wolf had finally become less wary and was curled up at his knee and he was stroking its head. “And then we take ‘em and turn ‘em loose somewhere?” he asked. “Up in the high country?”
Bellingham exchanged a look with the elder brother. “Sprung right,” he said, turning to look at the younger boy, “the trap breaks the animal’s back or neck. Under the water…” He shrugged.
The younger man’s brow furrowed. It was discomforting, thinking of an animal trapped under the water, gasping for air. He’d experienced that feeling once, when he was very young; when some older boys had tried to drown him in a watering trough. Val had saved his life. He shook his head a single time, forcing the memory of the terror he had felt into the dark closets of his mind. “Why can’t we turn them loose?” he asked.
“They would come back,” Bellingham answered. “You’ve trapped, haven’t you?” he asked; his tone neutral.
Johnny considered the question. “Yeah,” he replied softly. “Clean kills, when I needed to eat.” He had never understood the killing of animals just for hides.
Scott studied his brother for a time before speaking. “I don’t like this any better than you do, brother,” he said softly. “What we need to consider here is the potential damage we’re facing. The Ribbon provides water not only for Lancer and the Simmons’ place, but for the smaller places beyond the valley. We -- all of us -- need that water to be free-flowing for our cattle, and to irrigate the fields.”
Bellingham’s gaze was locked on the younger man at the hearth. There it was again, he thought, that soft side to the boy he had seen that first day with the wolf. He closed his eyes for a moment as a vision of Johnny as a toddler flashed across his mind; memories he had purposely blocked when the young pistolero had returned to Lancer. He wondered if, in a need to protect himself from further pain, Murdoch had done the same…
Johnny’s voice intruded into the older man’s mental ramblings. “In the mornin’,” he said, unfolding his legs and standing up. “How many you figure there are?”
Charlie smiled. The youth’s tone was, for the first time since he had met him, actually civil. He responded in kind. “It’s spring,” he said. “For sure, at least one pair of adults;” there was a sound as he exhaled. “This time of year, probably four, maybe six, kits.”
Scott was gathering up the traps. “We need to be going, Johnny,” he said. He looped the traps over his arm, hooking them against his elbow; his now-empty saddle bags resting across his forearm.
The wolf was standing just to the right of Johnny’s knee. The younger man’s fingers were scratching the top of the animal’s head. He gave the canine a final pat. “We’ll bring back the traps when we’re done, Mr. Bellingham.”
Hiding the smile with his hand, Bellingham hesitated before responding. “Charlie,” he said finally, looking first at Johnny and then at the blond. “You can both call me Charlie.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The next day, Friday, proved to be a long, frustrating day. During the long night before, the beavers had completed a second den, on the far side of the widening expanse of water, effectively blocking the remaining flow. Locating the entrance to the new tangle of downed saplings had taken almost the entire morning. It was as if the animals were aware they were being stalked by the humans, and had declared all out war on their two-legged enemies.
It didn’t help that Johnny had, on his second dive to locate an opening, had come face to face with a curious kit. Somehow, the youth had managed to bring the small creature to the surface.
But not without mishap. The sharp-toothed kit had managed to open an inch long gash on Johnny’s left hand; just below his little finger. He stood now, soaking wet, blood streaming down his wrist; swearing softly as the small beaver he had been intent on rescuing tumbled back into the water.
Scott was shaking his head. “Let me see,” he murmured.
Johnny was flexing his hand, watching as the gash opened and closed each time he made a fist. Tim and Ned were flanking him, their eyes wide.
“Jeez,” Ned breathed. He reached out, poking at the wound. “Makes you kinda wonder what a full-grown one could do.”
Scott took his brother’s hand in his own. “Reese, could you get the medical kit from my saddlebags, please?”
Reese grabbed both of his brothers; one in each hand. He pulled them along as he headed for Scott’s horse. When he returned, he was alone. “Stitches?”
The blond reached out, opening the small wooden case and taking out a thick wad of gauze. He pressed the swatch against his brother’s palm; relieved the bite wasn’t as deep as he first assumed. “No,” he answered. Looking up, he stared directly into his brother’s eyes. “I’m going to have to clean this out, Johnny.”
Johnny shrugged. “Carbolic?” he asked.
Scott nodded. “Ready?” He took the bottle Reese was holding, using his thumb and forefinger to work the cork free. Lifting the gauze pad away from the wound, he applied the solution; scrubbing a bit before refolding the cloth and pressing it tight. Beneath his fingers, he felt his brother tense.
Gently, Scott applied a fresh square of gauze. “Keep the pressure on it, Johnny.” Turning loose, he retrieved a length of cotton from the kit and deftly began winding it around his brother’s hand; careful to secure the pad in place.
“You’re gettin’ pretty good at this,” Johnny grinned.
The blond laughed. “It seems to be a requirement, little brother.” He tied the final knot; tucking the stray ends beneath the bandage. “I think we can call it a day,” he announced; nodding toward the river.
Reese Simmons was nodding his head in agreement. “We’ll check the traps in the morning,” he observed.
“First light,” Scott said. He took the medical kit from his friend and began putting things back into place. “You about ready to go home, brother?” he asked.
Johnny was busy examining the bandage. “Yeah,” he answered. “Don’t suppose I could wear a glove at supper?” He held up his hand.
“No. But it would probably be a good idea if you got dressed.” Scott grinned at his sibling; reminding him that he was still wearing nothing but his cut-off underwear, which was still soaking wet and clinging to the younger man’s slim torso.
The brunet laughed. He shook his head; water flying. “Thought I felt a breeze on my backside.” His injured hand forgotten, he turned, and sprinted over to the pile of clothing he had left laying on the ground.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny skidded to a halt at the breakfast table, slipping into his chair. “Sorry,” he murmured, quickly exchanging a look with his father. It was then he noticed the empty chair at Murdoch’s right. “Where’s Scott?” he asked. He looked up to see Teresa nodding at his napkin, and shook it out.
Murdoch was slicing a piece of plump sausage. “He went over to the Simmons’ place,” he answered. Scott’s early departure had been a surprise to the older man until his son had explained his reasoning. “Your brother feels he and Reese can handle checking the traps.”
Maria had just placed a plate of food in front of the younger man; along with a glass of cold milk. Her hand brushed his shoulder lightly as she headed back into the kitchen. She had been present earlier when Scott spoke with his father; relating not only Johnny’s discomfort over the method of trapping and the ultimate result, but the fact that his brother had managed to get himself bitten.
Johnny dug into his eggs. “Guess I better get a move on, if I wanna catch up,” he said.
The big Scot smiled. “I think, son, it was your brother’s intention to spare you the unpleasantness.”
Johnny stopped mid bite. He didn’t know if he should be grateful to his brother or resent his assumptions. “I can handle it,” he snorted. He shot a look a Teresa. “It’s not like I’m some damned girl.”
Murdoch ignored the snipe at his ward. Reaching out, he cupped his son’s chin in his hand, turning the boy’s head until they were eye-to-eye. He reached up, brushing aside the youth’s hair, and tapped the bruised bump on his forehead. “It appears he might have had another motive, aside from the bite.” he proposed. “What happened here, son?”
The brunet debated lying. He was pretty sure Scott hadn’t tattled on him about the wrestling that first day at the creek. “Horsin’ around with Ned and Tim,” he admitted.
The big ranched nodded, secretly pleased with the confession. “I’ll be expecting you to behave better tomorrow,” he declared.
Johnny had just taken a long drink of milk. Forgetting his napkin, he wiped the back of his sleeve across his mouth. “What’s happenin’ tomorrow?” he asked suspiciously.
“Church,” the older man answered. He averted his eyes, concentrating on the last of his eggs.
From the opposite side of the table came a soft and slightly vindictive laughter. “I’ll make sure his new suit and that nice white shirt Maria made for him are all laid out,” Teresa smiled. “Oh, and that tie Aggie Conway picked out for him when she and I went shopping.”
Johnny laid down his napkin; scrunching it up in his fist as he stared across at his foster sister. “I’m gonna…” he stopped himself, figuring it would be wiser to try a different tact, and turned to his father. But not before sticking out his tongue at the girl. “Cip’s got two green-broke ponies in the corral. Saw ‘em when we came in last night.” God, why was it so hard to ask for something he wanted, or wanted to do without making it a challenge? “You think I could work with ‘em this morning?” he asked softly, struggling hard to keep his tone non-confrontational.
Murdoch looked across at his youngest; mentally noting the way the question was asked. “How green-broke?” he asked; his intonation the same as his son’s.
The younger man shrugged. “Won’t know that ‘til I’ve had a chance to work ‘em.” He saw the frown forming. “They’re halter-broke,” he hurried on, “and Mateo was wipin’ ‘em down with a blanket without much fuss.”
The big Scot was dabbing his napkin against the corner of his mouth; wiping away a stray bread crumb. “All right,” he said. “Just be careful.” He smiled, his eyes warming. “And, Johnny,” he continued, “please wear some gloves.”
Standing up, the younger man finished the last of his milk before setting the glass back down at the center of his clean plate. Grinning, he took off for the front door. If he was lucky, one of those ponies had enough spunk to dump him on his ass. Not too hard, of course. Just enough to produce a crop of bruises that would keep him from having to attend church.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The service had taken longer than usual. Johnny had endured the whole affair in spite of a slightly bruised shoulder. He had tried to beg off, showing the damage to anyone who would look, but the response had been the same from everyone, including his father: “It’s not your shoulder you’ll be sitting on, Johnny.” End of fucking discussion.
He was with the Simmons twins now; standing in the shadow of the large cottonwood tree that stood between the church and the small parsonage. Tim had just retrieved a canvas-covered canteen from where he had stashed it in one of the two spring-fed watering troughs that supplied the town with fresh running water. Cold water dribbled in a steady stream from the stand pipe; keeping the trough filled with clean, clear water. He cast a quick look at the closed front door of the church. All three youths had been told to wait outside while the after-service meeting took place. Easing back on to his haunches, Tim held out the canteen; offering it first to Johnny, who was hunkered down beside Ned. “Try this,” he encouraged.
Johnny looked up at his friend, his head canting and his eyes narrowing as he watched the young man’s eyes. They were, as always, full of mischief. “Uh-uh,” he said finally. He turned to look at Ned, who was wearing the same shit-eating grin as his brother. “He pissed in it, didn’t he?”
Ned was shaking his head. He reached out to his brother, taking the canteen and uncapping the top. Tipping his head back, he took a long drink and then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Nah,” he said, offering the flask to his companion. “That old couple our Pa just hired on. They’re German; from the old country. The woman -- Hannah -- is goin’ to be takin’ care of the house, and her old man, Gus, is goin’ to be doin’ all the cookin’ for the crew. Some smithin’, too.” He flashed a grin at Johnny and shook the canteen a bit. “Old Gus makes beer. Tim and me tapped his stash.”
Curious, Johnny reached out. Still suspicious, he held the container under his nose and took a whiff. The odor was quite pungent; different than the beer that was served in the Silver Dollar and the Red Dog. Still suspicious, he handed the container off to Ned. “You first,” he said.
The twin shrugged. With his free hand, he lifted his Stetson; holding on to the hat as he smoothed his sandy-colored hair. When he replaced his hat, he took a long swig and swallowed.
Johnny reached out, taking the canteen. He took a tenuous swallow, and then tipped up the container for a bigger drink. The beer tasted different -- stronger -- and it was cold. “Not bad,” he said, passing off the tin to Tim.
Ned had picked up a handful of pebbles. He bounced them up and down in his right palm, and then began plunking the individual pea-sized rocks at various targets that surrounded them: larger rocks, the trunk of the tree, his brother’s left boot. “He calls it ‘bock beer’, whatever the hell that it.” He was quiet a moment. “You know what they’re talkin’ about in there?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question, and he continued without waiting for an answer. “A revival. A lousy, week-long revival. Gonna have both those ministers they’re talkin’ about hirin’ come in here and spend a week spoutin’ all that fire and brimstone shit.” He shook his head.
Johnny was enjoying his second draft from the canteen. There was something about cold beer on a hot morning that tasted particularly good. Especially hunkered down in the church yard. “Never been to a revival,” he said.
Tim punched Johnny’s shoulder. “Picture goin’ to church every…single…day,” he dragged out, forgetting that Johnny had told him he had been raised Catholic. “Gettin’ all cleaned up, sittin’ still through all the preachin’; Sunday to Sunday.” Turning to the youngest Lancer, he expounded. “Had one here before, when we were twelve. Ned and me figured it must be like goin’ to Hell.”
“Purgatory,” Ned corrected. “We ain’t done anything bad enough to go to hell.” He was hoarding the canteen. “Yet.” He snickered. Suddenly, he turned serious. “Ain’t just the revival,” he said, leaning in closer, as if he was telling a secret. “I heard Pa talkin’ about it with Reese. They’re lookin’ for a preacher who can be a school teacher, too.”
Johnny grabbed the canteen, sloshed it a bit, and then took a drink. There was foam on his upper lip when he lowered the flask. “So?” he asked.
“So,” Tim answered, “state law in California says they can keep you in school until you’re twenty-one, or you got the equi…” his voice faltered, “…equi…”
“Equivalent,” Ned interjected.
Tim nodded. “Equivalent of an eighth grade education,” he finished, pointing to his brother. “Me and Tim only went to school until sixth grade; when the school in Green River closed.” Reaching out, he grabbed the canteen.
Johnny’s expression was thoughtful. His formal schooling had been, at best, sporadic; the longest period he remembered the time in San Luis when he and his mama had lived with Val. Other times, when he found himself corralled by an overzealous priest or three, he’d spent time in mission schools. Except for the time with Val, none of the memories were particularly pleasant. “So?” he asked.
Ned, the most outspoken of the twins -- he was older than Tim by almost a half day, something he constantly reminded his “younger” brother -- answered. “So we need to get rid of those preachers before they get a chance to get hired; go back to how things were. Church once a week on Sundays and no school.”
There was the sound of a long, drawn out sigh from both twins as they looked to their companion for inspiration. Johnny was really good at thinking up plans.
“The organ,” Johnny whispered, suddenly heartened. It was amazing how things came to him out of the blue. And he hated that damned organ. Widow Hargis couldn’t play for shit.
Ned hunkered down. He belched; the air ripe with the beer he had been consuming. “My organ’s just fine, thank you,” he jibed.
Johnny giggled. The home-brewed liquor -- what had Ned called it, bock beer -- was more potent than he thought. “Not your organ, jackass! The one in the church.”
“Oh.” This in unison from the twins, exchanging a look. Johnny had an amazing mind; he could always be counted on to come up with the most complex solutions to the simplest problems. Tim had just crouched down beside his brother; laughing as he lost balance and fell back on his butt. He stayed in that position.
The youngest Lancer was thinking. Hard. He reached down, picking up a handful of pebbles, bouncing them against his palm. “Modoc Charlie,” he said finally.
Ned cut wind; a long drawn out eruption that smelt worse then his previous belch. He fanned the air behind him. “He don’t like me and Tim much,” he declared; his lips quirking into a slight frown of confusion as if he couldn’t remember why. He shrugged.
Johnny’s eyes were beginning to water, and he punched his friend’s upper arm. “Somethin’ crawl up there and die?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Charlie’s got all kinds of potions and stuff he uses for takin’ down game; live or otherwise.” Fiddling with his conchos, he was quiet a moment. “Hell, I’ve seen polecat hides he’s got tanned.”
Tim laughed. “Bet that place smells just great,” he reckoned. He shifted position on the ground, lifting his right buttock as he cut loose. Grinning, he poked his brother’s chest. “I win.”
“Jesus!” Johnny swore and stood up. He was pretty sure there was something in Scott’s book about the farting contest the Simmons’ twins had embarked upon. Waving a hand in front of his nose, he backed away from his companions, stumbling a bit. “Thought we were here to figure out a way to get outta goin’ to that damned revival!” he complained, dusting off his britches.
Ned nodded his head. “You figurin’ on puttin’ a stink bomb in the organ or somethin’?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope.” He shot a harsh glance at both brothers. “We plant a stink bomb, who do you think they’ll come lookin’ for?” he snorted.
Tim exchanged a look with his brother. “Good point, Johnny boy,” he complimented, struggling to stand up. He gave up, offering his arm to the brunet. There wasn’t much that happened in town that didn’t get laid at their feet; even more so since the youngest Lancer had returned home and joined in their mischief.
Reaching out, Johnny gave both brothers a good tug; lifting them both to their feet. “Remember that skunk that died under Widow Hargis’ store?” He grinned. “Maybe it’s got relatives. Sick relatives.”
The twins perked right up. “And you can get a skunk from Modoc Charlie?” they asked in once voice.
Johnny was studying the ground. “Nope. But Charlie can tell me how to trap one,” he announced, his eyes lifting. The blue orbs were dancing.
There was an exchange of handshaking and back-clapping all around. “You can count us in!” Ned declared.
Scott, who had just been sent to fetch his brother, approached the three miscreants. “Count you in on what?” he asked, the suspicion obvious as his deep baritone took on a paternal tone.
Johnny turned to face his brother. “On helpin’ me paint that corral fence I still got to paint,” he lied.
The blond moved in closer; his eyebrows rising as he got a good whiff of his younger brother’s breath. He moved closer to the fence that surrounded the parsonage, reaching a long arm down to retrieve several sprigs of fresh mint from among the other herbs that were growing amidst the budding spring flowers. “Chew this,” he ordered, handing off the leaves to his brother. He made the same offer to the twins.
“Now what?” Reese Simmons’ voice cut into the sudden quiet. His eyes narrowing, he reached behind Tim’s back and retrieved the canvas covered canteen from the younger man’s hand. Using his thumb and forefinger, he removed the stopper and took a sniff. “Jesus Christ!” he muttered. He waved the open canteen beneath Scott’s nose.
Scott grabbed his brother’s arm. “Don’t swallow the mint,” he ordered. “For two cents, I’d …”
“…tattle?” Johnny asked. He spat out the leaves, his eyes and nose smarting. He breathed into his palm, his eyebrows rising as he realized there was no trace of beer odor.
“No!” Scott shot back. “At church, little brother?”
Johnny was feeling cocky. It was getting hot, and the beer was working. “Church, Clancy’s…” He leaned forward, waggling a finger at his brother. “What’s the difference between getting loaded here,” he pointed at the ground, “or at Clancy’s. Amongst other things,” he grinned. He knew, gut-sure knew, that his brother’s Wednesday night trip to town had involved a lot more than card playing and beer drinking.
Vindictive, Scott dug his fingers into his brother’s upper arm. “We’ll discuss this at home,” he said. “There’s a whole section in ‘A Young Gentleman’s Guide to Proper Behavior’ on what’s appropriate where and when;” he scolded “and what isn’t.” He started pulling his brother in the direction of the Lancer buggy.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott had come up with a whole new form of torture; one his father subscribed to with a hearty approval after finding out from Reese Simmons that Johnny and the twins had been drinking. Instead of reading the book to his younger brother, he stood over him at Murdoch’s desk, watching as Johnny transcribed, word for word, the appropriate pages: The Necessity of Discretion in Thought, Word and Deed.
“This is bullshit, brother,” Johnny muttered as he flipped a page.
The blond was leaning over his brother’s shoulder. “Consider yourself lucky, Johnny,” he breathed, keeping the words between them private. “The section on inappropriate activities while in, or around, a church is twice as long.” He leaned in closer to his sibling’s ear. “Besides, isn’t this better than Murdoch lecturing you, or assigning you yet another long list of chores?”
Johnny turned sharply in the chair, staring up at his sibling. Scott was smiling. He stole a quick look at his father, who was sitting in his chair beside the fireplace; contentedly puffing on his pipe. As if he was aware he was being observed, the big Scot looked up; using the stem of his pipe to make a writing motion in the palm of his hand. Purely for effect, Johnny let out a long sigh; flexed his fingers and resumed his task. “Next time,” he murmured, “couldn’t you just tell Reese to keep his fu… mouth shut?”
“Last paragraph,” Scott proclaimed, loud enough for his father to hear. It wasn’t, really. There was still another full page. “If you write a little faster, we’ll have enough time before supper for a quick game of chess.”
The scratch of the pencil increased in its intensity.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The next week seemed to pass with an ordinary quickness, one day rolling into the other without much incidence. To make things look good, Tim and Ned Simmons showed up to help Johnny paint the corral fence, accomplishing the task with relatively little horse play. All three youths charmed Maria at meal time; and in a gesture of joint good will actually spent an afternoon helping her to weed her large garden. They left when they realized their good behavior was making everyone suspicious.
On Thursday, Johnny disappeared. Without telling anywhere he was going, the youth had risen early; skipping breakfast in favor of a half dozen oatmeal cookies. He had also packed a decent supply of canned goods, some coffee beans, another bottle of laudanum and the remainder of the fried chicken from the night before.
Modoc Charlie’s cabin seemed to be floating on a cloud of vapor when he approached. The spring fog gave the place a mystical quality, as if the small building was rising up from its hiding place beneath the earth; reminding Johnny of an old Scottish folk tale Murdoch had related. It was the story of a people and a place where normal life occurred for a brief spate of time, once every hundred years, only to magically disappear as the village fell back asleep.
It was quiet; too quiet, Johnny thought. He approached the cabin cautiously, listening hard for any sign of life. Uncertain, he remained mounted; relieved when the front door opened and the wolf appeared.
Bellingham opened the door wider. “You’re up early, boy,” he greeted.
Johnny felt a wave of relief washing over him. He realized then, what he had feared: that the old man had died. “Finished my home chores yesterday,” he said, dismounting. He untied the saddle bags from behind his saddle and pulled them free. “Brought you some of Maria’s fried chicken,” he said.
The mountain man laughed. “Another ‘unabashed bribe’?” he asked. He waved the younger man to him.
“Kind of,” Johnny returned, smiling.
Ignoring the feeling that the youth was up to some mischief, Bellingham ushered him into the house. When the wolf began snuffling at the saddle packs, he smacked the animal with the back of his hand; rebuking it. “Romulus!”
Johnny hoisted the saddle blankets up on the table. “Funny name,” he said, realizing it was the first time he’d ever heard the mountain man actually address the beast. He reached out, scratching the animal’s head.
“There is an ancient legend,” Charlie began. He was rummaging through the supplies, putting them in order on the table. “That the city of Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. They were the sons of the God, Mars, and suckled by a she-wolf.” He smiled across at the younger man. “Did you come here for a history lesson?” he asked, teasing.
“Lesson in live trapping,” the youth answered. He flashed a lop-sided grin at the older man. “Scott gives me history lessons,” he smiled. “Murdoch, too, when he ain’t yellin’ at me.”
Bellingham chose to ignore the last. “What kind of animal?” he asked.
“Skunk,” Johnny answered too quickly. Feeling he needed an explanation, he grasped at straws. “Widow Hargis,” he said, settling on a partial lie. “She’s got a skunk under her store.” He neglected to say it was dead and already had been removed. “Thought maybe I could help her out.”
The older man didn’t believe him; not for one minute. “I have a small live trap in the back.”
Johnny nodded. He’d figured as much. “What do I need for bait?” he asked. He was quiet for a time. “And how do I keep ‘em from raisin’ a stink?”
Charlie had dosed himself pretty well with laudanum when he had risen. It was becoming a necessity now; the drug in his coffee at first light. He motioned to the door; shooing the wolf out before him.
Johnny followed the man out to the side shed. He followed the older man inside; letting the light from the rising sun penetrate the darkness. The live trap was actually sitting atop of box right next to the door.
The mountain man carried the trap back into the sunlight, setting it on the rim of the rain barrel that set just below the eaves. “Skunks are omnivores,” he said. “Grubs, mice. Fresh fruit.” He smiled. “They have a sweet tooth of sorts,” he noted. “You’ve got sweet food for the horses…”
Johnny was exploring the trap with his fingers. He was nodding. “Oats, corn; barley and molasses. What about knockin’ ‘em out while I’m haulin’ ‘em off somewhere to turn ‘em loose?” When Bellingham started heading for the front of the cabin, he picked up the trap and fell in behind. Romulus padded along behind him.
Charlie led the way up the stairs. There was a pouch hanging on a peg beside the door. He dug into the small bag, withdrawing a wad of something dark and moist. He laid it in the younger man’s hand. “Modoc’s use it. I’ve used it for taking raccoon, opossum. They favor the night, too.”
The brunet lifted the small nugget to his nose. It had a smell reminiscent of the spices Maria used when she was making dulcitos; the sweet raisin tamales she made as treats. “And it’ll put ‘em out?” he asked.
“You’ll have about four hours from the time they drop; to the time you want to turn them loose.” Charlie was studying his young companion, wondering what was going on behind the blue eyes. He contented himself with the knowledge that he would find out. There wasn’t much that went on in the valley without his knowing about it; no matter how much of a recluse people thought he was.
“Okay,” the younger man said. “I’ll bring it back when I’m done,” he promised; tapping the cage. The smile was infectious; the corners of Johnny’s eyes crinkling, the sapphire orbs dancing.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It was almost dark when Johnny trotted into the yard. He had made a couple of side trips; to the cave where he and the Simmons’ twins had agreed to meet, and then a long stop up in the northern pasture. Taking the chance he wouldn’t be seen, he had culled Barranca from the remuda, riding him bareback for almost an hour; with only a rope hackamore for a bridle. It only made him want the horse back that much more.
He was stabling the black when he sensed someone coming up behind him.
“Johnny.” Murdoch, hands in his pockets, approached his son. His tone was conversational, but it was evident he was making a conscious effort to remain in control.
Johnny pulled the saddle from the gelding’s back. He hoisted the rig up onto the top most railing of the animal’s stall. “Yeah,” he answered.
Murdoch inhaled; the sound cutting into the quiet. “Where have you been, Johnny?”
Oh, shit, the younger man thought. “Up to Modoc Charlie’s,” he answered truthfully. He had no reason to lie. It occurred to him then, what was wrong. “Forgot to tell someone where I was goin’,” he breathed. He moistened his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. It was the first rule at Lancer, had been for years: no crew was sent out without a specific location, no individual rode off without telling someone where they were off to. The Old Man had been a stickler on that one; and it had been the first rule Johnny had broken. They’d butted heads over it from the very first day. “Stopped by the pasture,” he dipped his head. “Checked on Barranca.” He took a deep breath, feeling ashamed at the half lie. “Sorry.”
The older man cleared his throat; touched by the longing he heard in the boy’s voice when he said the palomino’s name. He knew from the stray hairs he saw on Johnny’s pants the youth had also ridden the animal. Something stirred deep within him, and he decided not to lecture his son; choosing instead to simply remind him that he expected the ranch rules to be obeyed. “I don’t want this happening again, son,” he said, his tone firm. “There can’t be one set of rules for my sons; and another for the men.” Then, reaching out to smooth the saddle blanket Johnny had just laid across the saddle, “How was Charlie?”
Johnny’s head came up, the surprise evident in his face. “He was lookin’ better than when Scott and I went up there about trappin’ the beavers. I took him more laudanum, some canned goods and the chicken.”
Murdoch laughed. “Maria will be speaking to you about the chicken,” he scolded. “She was planning on serving it for lunch.” He stood for a time, quietly. “He needs a good brushing,” he said finally, nodding at the black. He turned and headed out of the barn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny peeked around the corner of the archway leading into the Great Room, grinning when Scott looked up from his reading. “Where’s Murdoch?” he asked, stepping down into the room.
Scott closed the book. He was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs, his legs stretched out before him. “In his study going over some church papers.” He watched as Johnny dropped lightly into the room. “Before that, he was out in the barn looking for you.” It was clear from his tone he was clearly surprised his brother was in one piece.
The brunet picked up an apple from the bowl sitting on the table behind the couch. “Nope,” he said, taking out his pocket knife and turning to lean against the edge of the sturdy, ornate tabla. “That old coot in the barn wasn’t our Old Man,” he said. “I think it was one of those spook story things you told me about when I was on the mend; a doppelganger; you know, one of them ghosts that looks just like a real person.” He began cutting a slice from the apple.
Scott stood up; laying the book on the seat of the chair he had just vacated. He crossed to where his brother was standing, holding his hand out in expectation; smiling when Johnny halved the apple and gave him a piece. “And you know this why?” he asked.
“Because he didn’t holler,” Johnny answered. “Just asked me how Charlie was, and told me the black needed brushin’.”
Surprised, Scott gestured for his brother’s knife; using the blade to peel and core his piece of apple. “He was pretty angry when he found out you’d left this morning without telling anyone,” he stressed the word, spearing his younger brother with a mock look of brotherly severity. He leaned in closer. “Maybe he’s just biding his time,” he suggested.
Johnny laughed. “Nope! I think maybe the Old Man is mellowin’.”
Scott had just taken a bite from his piece of apple. He began to choke. He turned slightly, gesturing for his brother to pat his back. The recovery was quick. “I’d go with the doppelganger theory,” he coughed. Picking up the decanter of Scotch, he poured himself a half-measure and drank it down.
The younger man had finished his piece of fruit. He was toying with the liquor bottles. “You think he’ll ever put out the tequila again?”
“Not if you keep sneaking beer on Sundays,” Scott snorted. “How was Charlie?”
Johnny shrugged. “Better than he was the other day. I think he’s hittin’ the laudanum pretty hard, though.”
Scott headed back for the chair and his book. He remained standing for a time, his back to his brother. “My great aunt -- my Grandfather’s elder sister -- died from a cancer,” he said, fingering the cover of the book. “She lingered in terrible pain for more than six months, Johnny. I think, in the end, the doctor who was caring for her purposely gave her enough medication to allow her to finally slip away.” Although it wasn’t spoken of in polite society, Scott knew such mercy killings happened and that doctors often facilitated the easy passing of those who could afford their tender mercies. It also was not uncommon for those same doctors to terminate the lives of deformed children at birth. A shudder coursed through his body as he fought the dark thoughts.
Watching his brother carefully, Johnny shoved himself away from the table. He sensed a need to change the subject. “How come you aren’t in there,” he nodded in the direction of their father’s study, “lookin’ at those church papers, too?”
The blond eased himself back into the blue chair and reopened his book. “He’s reviewing financial reports. Reese and I are only privy right now to what the guidelines are going to be for hiring the new minister,” he answered absently.
Johnny perked up. “Yeah?” He was standing in front of his brother. “So what are them guidelines?” he asked.
Sighing, Scott closed the book and laid it across his thigh. “They’re looking for someone who will not only be willing to serve as pastor, but also as a teacher.” He paused, putting his thoughts in order; watching as his brother slouched into the chair to his left. “Murdoch was telling me that Green River had a pretty decent elementary school some years back. I understand the building is still standing and is occasionally used by the Cattle Growers Association and as a court house when necessary -- but their hope has been to return it to its original use. Green River has almost doubled in size since Pardee’s death and the end of the land wars. Jess Simmons said there are more than thirty children just in town; and more on the outlying ranches.”
The ‘outlying ranches’ part piqued the brunet’s interest. He began toying with the conchos on his pant’s leg. “What’s an elementary school, brother?” he asked.
Johnny had been staring straight ahead, but he turned slightly; the soft glow of the dual-globed lantern giving his face a ruddiness that made him look, Scott thought, like a small boy. “Usually, Johnny, it’s a school students attend from kindergarten or first grade through eighth grade. In some places, it can be from first to sixth.” He shrugged. “It depends on local government; what the requirements are.”
“What about here?” the brunet asked. “In Green River?”
Scott considered the question, understanding for the first time why his brother was asking. He remained silent, staring hard at the floor as he raked his tongue across the back of his top teeth. “Murdoch was telling me earlier that the State legislature has passed a law mandating the equivalent of an eighth grade education for students both male and female before they reach their age of majority.” He came forward in his chair, his elbows resting on his knees.
“Just ask,” Johnny murmured.
The blond stood up; crossing the room to the drink table. “I know you can read and write, Johnny,” he said softly. “In two languages. And you’ve taken your turn at the books…”
The younger man snorted. “Yeah. And you know what the Old Man thinks of my writin’.”
“Writing is a skill, Johnny; like drawing. It just takes practice.” Casting a look towards the hallway leading to his father’s study, Scott groped under the drink table and brought out the decanter of tequila. He poured his brother a quick shot and handed him the glass. “You’re worried Murdoch is going to start asking questions about your formal schooling,” he declared.
Johnny accepted the glass but didn’t drink. “Could he tell me I have to go?” he asked.
Scott knew there was no point in sugar-coating the next. “Yes, legally, since you haven’t reached your majority, he could.” He saw Johnny’s shoulders tense and immediately went to the younger man’s side. “Consider this, brother. The mandate states ‘the equivalent’ of an eighth grade education. That could be interpreted in many ways.” He brightened. “We could request that you take a test to find out where you are grade wise,” he said.
Johnny emptied his glass. “I ain’t never taken a test, Scott; I’d fuck it up for sure!”
Scott’s nimble mind was working. “Not if you had some coaching,” he suggested. “Not if I were to coach you!” He reached out, his right hand coming to rest on his brother’s left shoulder, close to his neck. “You are one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, Johnny.” His hand moved to the scruff of his sibling’s neck, his fingers massaging the tightness he could feel building.
Aware that he was about to broach a delicate subject, Scott chose his next words very carefully, his voice softening. “Your mother took you from here when you were only two, little brother; nothing more than a toddler. You survived out there,” he nodded in the direction of the darkness beyond the windows, “for thirteen years before you picked up a gun.” Scott thought back to the first time he’d seen his brother’s naked body; to the amazement he had felt when he saw -- in spite of Johnny’s impoverished and unstable childhood -- there were no signs at all of physical abuse. “It takes a quick and clever mind to survive alone reasonably unscathed in the world. And you did it, Johnny; you came through it all.” He pulled the younger man close in a quick hug. “We’ll talk to Murdoch about it,” he said, letting go.
“Talk to Murdoch about what?” the voice asked.
Scott turned to his see his father standing in the doorway. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny stashing the now empty shot glass behind the other drink decanters. “Johnny and I were discussing the possibility of a school in Green River in the near future. I know at the board meeting it was suggested that one of the requirements for the new minister would be their ability to also function as a teacher.”
Murdoch crossed the room to his desk in search of fresh tobacco for his pipe. He stood for a time, prying open the humidor and then filling the cherry-wood bowl; quietly tamping the shredded tobacco into place with the forefinger of his right hand. His face betrayed nothing of what he was thinking. Replacing the lid to the humidor, he picked up a match from the brass holder; striking the sulfur tip against his thumb nail. “There are enough families now in and about Green River,” he said between puffs, “to justify reopening the school. It’s time,” he finished.
Johnny shoved himself away from the drink table and began meandering about the room; picking things up, putting them down. Anything to keep his hands busy. Scott watched him, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Murdoch scolded his brother about his restless pacing. He turned slightly, pouring his father a generous measure of Taliskers; a second tumbler for himself. Crossing the room, he placed the drink glass on his father’s desk.
The tall Scot picked up the tumbler. “It there something on your mind, Scott?” he asked. His voice raised slightly, a hint of an edge in his next words as he watched his younger son move from chair to table to chair to the windows. “Or you, Johnny?”
The brunet was toying with the fringe on the dark curtains that draped either side of the French doors farthest away from his father’s desk. “So who’s gonna have to go to that school?” he asked.
Scott had just taken a sip from his glass; and was now parked on the edge of Murdoch’s desk. From his perch he could see his brother as well as his father. Murdoch’s expression was remarkably impassive; Johnny’s decidedly not.
Murdoch took a long drink before answering. “The current law requires everyone to attend school until they complete the eighth grade,” he replied, “or until they turn twenty-one.”
Johnny tugged at the drape a final time. “That right?” he asked. He turned and faced his father fully. “I ain’t goin’.”
The blond’s eyes closed briefly. As usual, his younger brother had flung down the gauntlet. He shook his head; sure of what was going to come next. Hoping to avoid the verbal duel, he spoke up. “I believe the law actually states ‘the equivalent of an eighth grade education’, sir,” he ventured, careful to keep his tone neutral.
Murdoch’s jaws were working. He had taken his usual place behind the desk; the big chair creaking as he settled in. Putting down his drink, he picked up his pipe; scraping the contents of the bowl into the ashtray at his elbow with the small blade of the bone-handled pocket knife he had just taken from his desk drawer. “You are correct, Scott,” he said softly. He began refilling the pipe. “Which means your brother will be taking some form of test to determine…”
Johnny cut in. “… determine what!?” he demanded.
Scott stood up. “Johnny,” he cautioned quietly. “Choose your battles, brother…”
“Just did!” the younger man snapped. “I ain’t goin’ to school, and I ain’t takin’ any test!!”
Aware Murdoch had shoved back his chair and was now standing up, the blond made a deliberate move to put himself between his father and his brother. Behind him, he heard his father take a deep breath.
Murdoch was resolute in his determination not to lose his temper; but was not going to tolerate his younger son’s belligerence. He crossed the floor to where both of his sons were now standing shoulder to shoulder. “The ranchers in this valley,” he began, “have worked long and hard since before California entered the Union to bring law and order to the State.” He frowned as Johnny snorted, pinning the younger man in place with a harsh glare. “If we’re going to continue to move forward, the children in Green River and the neighboring towns are going to have to be educated; to prepare them to live a more prosperous and responsible life.
“That was the purpose of the new legislation: to provide a decent future for all children; not just the offspring of the wealthy and the privileged.” His gaze shifted to his elder son, his tone softening. “The haciéndados provided excellent educations for their sons and daughters, Scott; and some of their employees. It was, however, a caste system. The lower the rung on the ladder; the less education.” His eyes swung back to his younger son. “You’re mother was well educated, John; and an extremely intelligent woman.” He said the words as if they would make a difference.
Johnny’s face mirrored the same expression Scott had seen that day at the river when Teresa had told his sibling about his mother running away with another man. Anger, distrust; and finally the pain that came with the realization the girl was telling the truth.
His face now a mask of cold indifference, Johnny was staring hard at the floor. If Mama was so fuckin’ smart, how come she’d been so dumb about what she had done to make a livin’? “Yeah,” he breathed. “And Jesus walked on water.” When he looked up, it was to meet his father’s steady scrutiny head on. “I ain’t goin’…”
Murdoch raised his right hand, effectively stilling his youngest son. “We’ll discuss what you are or are not going to do at the appropriate time, John. But I can assure you, we will abide by the law.”
Concerned over what was coming, Scott reached out, his hand coming to rest on his sibling’s shoulder. “Let it rest, brother,” he cajoled. “We’ll deal with it as it comes.”
Surprisingly, Johnny seemed to submit. He shrugged. A ghost of a smile appeared as he faced his brother. “Sure. Why not?” Turning, he headed out of the room and into the hallway. “‘Night,” he called over his shoulder.
Scott turned to look at his father. “That went well,” he ventured.
Murdoch was at the drink table, pouring another measure of Scotch. When he turned to face his elder son, he was smiling. “He’s finally settling in,” he declared.
Or not, Scott thought. He decided it was a good time to finish his drink.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Two of ‘em,” Ned Simmons crowed, looking into the small cage. He slapped at his brother’s hand as Tim attempted to poke a stick between the wires.
Johnny was hunkered down next to his companions. “Yep,” he said. They were in the cave; the one the twins had shown Johnny shortly after his recovery from Pardee’s bullet. The whirlwind days, he thought, the life-piled-on-life days when he had packed as much as he could into a single twenty-four hour day. It hadn’t been easy; but it sure in Hell had been worth it!
The pair of young skunks had been captured in a single night. They were blissfully asleep now; curled up in tight balls. Johnny had kept them caged and in a state of near, drug-induced hibernation for three days. Modoc Charlie’s secret recipe worked way better than he had imagined: on the couple of occasions the animals had actually roused, the kits had behaved like drunks. Happy drunks.
“Where’d you tell your Old Man you were goin’?” Tim asked. He and his brother had told their father they were going to do some late Sunday afternoon fishing.
“Up to Charlie’s,” Johnny answered. “Did, too, just before I came up here.”
Ned stood up, brushing off his jeans. They were fairly close to the opening of the shallow limestone cavern; close enough that there was light from the afternoon sun. “It starts tomorrow,” he breathed. “The preachin’.”
Johnny grinned up at his companion. “Maybe,” he breathed. “Maybe not.”
“So how we gonna do it?” Tim was still squatting down beside the cage.
There was a soft rustle of leather as Johnny levered himself up from the ground. “Tonight,” he said. “We’re gonna sack ‘em up and sneak ‘em into the church.” His eyes narrowed as he mentally reviewed his plan. “I figure if we put ‘em under the organ…”
Tim had risen to his feet. “Where under the organ?” He giggled; realizing that they had all been whispering.
Johnny had to think about that for a minute. The Lancer pew was fairly close to the raised pulpit and the small pump organ. “On the inside, under the pedals.” He motioned for the twins to follow him outside.
“The pedals?” Ned questioned.
Johnny made an up and down pushing gesture with his hands. “Yep!” He laughed. “I figure about the second or third time Widow Hargis stomps her feet down, those skunks’ll wake up, and it’ll be so long and good bye to the…”
“Preacher/Teacher!!” Tim hooted. He sobered. “That means we gotta sneak outta the house tonight!”
Ned punched his brother’s shoulder. “The Three Musketeers, jackass. ‘All for one, one for all!’ Can’t expect Johnny to do all the work!”
“Just remember the plan,” Johnny reminded. “We make nice and pretend we need to go to the jake. Before Widow Hargis starts makin’ all that racket.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Monday arrived with the hint of rain. Large billowing thunderheads had formed on the western horizon, building now and resting heavily against the mountains; the snow-capped peaks invisible beneath the grey-tinged clouds. Murdoch, dressed in black trousers, a crisp white shirt and black string tie was standing on the front portico; watching the sky. It was more than reasonably warm for a spring day; and after more than a quarter of a century living on this land -- at the foot of these mountains -- the older man knew the rains would not reach the valley.
Scott joined his father, the big Scot’s tan jacket folded across his forearm. “Please tell me it isn’t going to rain,” he breathed. He had just spent the last twenty minutes convincing his younger brother that leather pants and boots didn’t qualify as casual town dress even if they were clean, and that particular storm had been more than enough for one day.
Murdoch shook his head and reached out, taking the jacket and slipping it on. “I take it your brother had some objection to what Maria laid out for him to wear?” The housekeeper held a deep-rooted belief that it was her responsibility to see to it the men in Lancer hacienda were properly attired at all social functions.
The blond laughed. The tan corduroy jacket he was wearing was almost identical to his father’s. “Is there some law in Mexico, sir, which expressly forbids clothing devoid of embroidery and colors other than red and blue; and another that mandates leather pants with silver conchos down the side?”
Johnny chose this particular moment to come through the front door. “No, Boston,” he groused, “but they sure in hell got one against plaid.”
Murdoch turned to face his youngest son; a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Johnny was never going to let Scott live down those pants. Reaching out, he straightened the youth’s tie, his right eyebrow arching when the brunet attempted to brush his hand away. “Where’s your sister?” he asked, squaring the knot and patting the tie in place.
“Standin’ in front of the mirror, pinchin’ her cheeks,” Johnny answered, already tugging at his collar. “Said it was to make her face have more color. I told her she ought‘a get off her dead a.. butt and try gettin’ out in the sun more.”
Scott exchanged a long look with his father before settling his gaze on his sibling. “Someone get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” he teased. Johnny had slept in, almost missing breakfast. When he had entered his brother’s bedroom to wake him, he had found Johnny sprawled out on the bed, fully clothed and in his boots. His gut instinct had told him his brother had been up to late night mischief, but -- since things had been relatively smooth for the past several days -- he had decided to let it ride.
Johnny grinned. “Didn’t know there was a ‘wrong side of the bed’,” he murmured. His eyes were twinkling. “Now the middle, sometimes…”
The blond reached out, tagging his brother’s right shoulder. Without saying anything, he nodded towards the barn. Cipriano’s sons, Mateo and Paco were there. Paco was leading the Lancer surrey towards the house. Mateo was leading a freshly groomed Barranca from the barn and was turning him into the corral.
“Barranca,” Johnny breathed. Immediately, he stepped off the porch, only to be hauled back by his father.
“You’ll have plenty of time for your horse when we return from town,” he chided. He was smiling when he attempted to smooth the younger man’s hair. “Your uncle has determined you’ve suffered enough trying to decide which horse you’re going to ride when you’re doing chores. He also feels you’ve been trying harder to behave. I agree with him”
Johnny’s head dropped, and he exhaled; his lips slightly pursed. “Thanks,” he breathed. Guilt began its slow crawl up his gullet. He swallowed, effectively putting it back in its proper place.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The ride into town was uneventful. As usual, Murdoch was driving; Scott seated to his right as they engaged in quiet conversation. Johnny was in the back with Teresa, feigning sleep. Anything to avoid listening to the girl’s constant prattle. He concentrated on listening to the soft, deep baritone of his elder brother.
Scott’s voice carried above the steady clip-clop of the matched bays. “I’ve never attended a revival, sir,” he said. He smiled a bit, turning to look fully at his father’s profile. “Grandfather and I attended an Episcopalian Church in Boston; the Bishops made the decision regarding pastoral appointments.”
Murdoch clucked to the horses, urging them into a full trot. “Your mother and I were married in that church,” he said, the words coming softly. In spite of Harlan’s disapproval, it had been a large wedding, the cream of Boston society in attendance. “Paul Revere’s church,” he smiled; attempting to ease the sadness that threatened to take him, “the Old North. Your mother told me the history; that your grandfather’s family,” he continued, “had box pews across the aisles from your Grandmother’s family; all of them from the time before the Revolutionary War.”
Johnny had shifted slightly in his seat, intent now on listening to the words coming from the front bench. Even Teresa was quiet.
“He met my Grandmother in that church,” Scott said. He was staring straight ahead when he said the next; pleasant memories of another time warming him. “She was fourteen and he was sixteen. They waited seven years to become engaged; eight years until they married.”
Murdoch was silent for a time. It was hard for him to think of Harlan Garrett as a man who had fallen so completely in love at such a young age, although Catherine had delighted in telling him the story. It had been a happy marriage, too. “No wonder he thought your Mother and I were impetuous,” he laughed. His expression was soft when he turned to face his elder son. “Scott…”
The blond knew instinctively his father was about to go somewhere that -- right now -- he himself didn’t want to go. “The church in Green River, sir, the revival?” Behind him, he heard his younger brother sigh and shift in his seat.
Murdoch found himself welcoming the change in subject. “Presbyterian, originally,” he answered. “As the population in the valley increased, more people came in who had been a part of other Protestant congregations, and the people merged. We have Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, even a few Baptists. The church board is a pretty even representation of the different congregations that have come together. That’s why we choose our ministers through a combination of popular vote by the members, and final resolution by the board.
“The revival gives everyone an opportunity to listen to the men who have applied for the post.”
Johnny had become more alert. He was sitting up in the back seat now. “Two preachers,” he said. “We couldn’t have ‘em speak for two days; pick the winner?” Or maybe flip a fuckin’ coin?
Murdoch turned in his seat; visibly amused at Johnny’s ability to sometimes get right to the core of a matter. “The very same suggestion Jess and I made at the board meeting,” he informed his younger son; smiling as he said the words, even more at the youth’s expression. “Unfortunately, Jess and I were in the minority.”
They had reached the town. The parking area around the small church was rapidly filling; small buggies, surreys and light wagons, the horses tethered. Beyond the animals, beneath a cluster of budding cottonwood trees, long tables had been set up for the pot luck luncheon that would be served prior to the services.
The tall Scot pulled the buggy to a halt. Parking had been set apart for the board members, who also functioned as church elders. The spot was shady, and only a short walk to the tables. “Scott, you and your brother help Teresa with the food Maria packed.” He pointed to the place where Jess and Reese Simmons were standing with other board members; waving in greeting as he spied Aggie Conway. Dropping the tie-off weight next to Zanzibar’s right foreleg, he headed off.
Johnny had pulled one of the baskets from the rear of the wagon; surprised at the weight. “Holy shit, brother, Maria figurin’ on feedin’ the whole town?”
Scott laughed, smacking his brother’s arm. “No. She was concerned that you hadn’t eaten your proper breakfast!” He nodded at the wicker basket his brother was toting. “I believe that basket’s just for you!”
There was a feeling of carnaval (carnival) in the air the elder Lancer son realized; something that Johnny had sensed as well. Soon the crowds began separating into the cliques normal to such a gathering: the adults merging to make the perfunctory greetings, parting again as the adult men and women broke into male only and female only clutches.
It was different for the younger generations. That group converged, co-mingling as the young adults began playing at flirtation, the smaller children playing games of tag in and out among their taller and only marginally attentive siblings.
Johnny and the Simmons twins were standing off from the crowd, observing. All three boys were antsy. It didn’t help that none of them had had much sleep.
Ned was the first to break the silence. He stood, his right hip cocked slightly as he rested his weight on his left foot. His right knee was still smarting from the scrape he had incurred when he and Johnny were belly-crawling beneath the church. “You think those critters are still knocked out?” he asked nervously.
Tim’s face mirrored his brother’s exactly. He, too, was frowning. “What if they…if something happens before everyone gets inside?”
“Phttt,” Johnny snorted. He was chewing on a blade of grass he had plucked from beneath the cottonwood they had chosen as their meeting place. He threw it away when he saw a stray dog sniff around the base of the tree trunk and then relieve itself. “You two worry too much,” he scolded. “Hell, it ain’t been that long since we stuck that bag under the organ.” He was being optimistic, and he knew it, but he wasn’t about to show his true concerns. Besides, a steady diet of doped food had kept the young skunks in a state of perpetual happiness; like a couple of green kids on their first drunk. Grinning, he nodded towards the tables. The bright checkered table-clothes were fluttering in the morning breeze. “It ain’t that long until we eat; then the meeting.”
A flash of pale blue gingham suddenly caught Johnny’s attention. As if she sensed she was being watched, the young girl turned to face him, and he took a deep breath. She was fair, like Scott, with hair the color of winter wheat and eyes the same shade of blue that decorated the Delft china in the Lancer kitchen. A tiny little thing -- Johnny thought she couldn’t be more than five feet tall -- and she seemed to dance as she walked. A small girl and a young boy shadowed her every move and she didn’t seem to mind.
Johnny poked Ned’s side. “Who is she?” he breathed, never taking his eyes off the girl.
Ned followed Johnny’s gaze. “Lottie McIntyre,” he said knowingly. The Simmons’ had arrived at the church earlier than the Lancers. “Her old man is one of the ministers the church board in considerin’.” He grinned across at his companions. “She’s sixteen, and those two,” he made a subtle nod at the young woman, “are her little sister and brother.”
“She is kinda pretty,” Tim volunteered.
“Damned pretty,” Johnny agreed. He began to secretly wonder what it would be like to kiss a preacher’s daughter; laughing to himself at a sudden memory from his not too distant past. He’d done that once, he recalled. Only the preacher had been a priest, and the daughter had been a lot more experienced than he had reckoned.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer stood just to the right of Jess Simmons. Scott and Reese were just to his left and deep in discussion. Beyond them, in a gathering of young people, he could see Teresa with her friends. There was no sign of Johnny.
The blond turned to face his father, immediately knowing what the man was going to ask. His eyes swept the crowd, finally coming to rest on his younger brother and the Simmons’ twins. The three youths were lounging in the shade of a solitary cottonwood that stood apart from the other trees; directly between where the buggies were parked and the food tables. “Over there,” he said; nodding towards the group.
Murdoch was about to call out to his youngest when someone at the tables called out ‘Let’s eat!’ Grinning, he watched as Johnny and the twins made a bee-line for the food.
Scott had seen his brother’s swift move and laughed. “Shall we?” he invited.
Reese Simmons stood back as his father and Murdoch Lancer headed for the serving line. He placed a firm hand on Scott’s shoulder. “So what do you think they’ve been planning?” he asked.
The blond laughed. “The complete and utter downfall of the civilized world as they know it?”
Reese snorted. He led the way towards the tables. “That and the upstairs rooms at the Silver Dollar and The Red Dog,” he shot back knowingly. It hadn’t been so long ago that he didn’t remember what it was like to be nineteen.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The picnic meal progressed at a leisurely pace as the townspeople and families from the outlying ranches and small farms renewed acquaintanceships. This had been the first large gathering of the extended communities of Green River and Morro Coyo since the trouble with Day Pardee. The emotions ran the gamut from grief to peaceful contentment; those who had lost family members comforted by those who had survived unscathed. By the time the meal had ended, the events of the past fall and winter were buried and the anticipated celebratory wake about to begin. Before long, everyone was digging in and the food began to disappear.
The meal had barely ended when Murdoch successfully corralled his youngest boy. He laid a firm hand on his son’s shoulder, taking out a handkerchief to dab at the remainder of a piece of blueberry pie at the corner of Johnny’s mouth; resisting the urge to spit-clean the youth’s entire face. “I want you to wait for your brother and me over there,” he said, nodding towards the front stairs of the church.
Aware of the amused glances that were being cast in his direction, the brunet squirmed away from his father’s grasp. “C’mon, Murdoch. The whole f… damned town is watchin’,” he complained.
“Go,” Murdoch ordered. He stood for a time, his hands cocked on his hips, watching as the youth made his way through the crowd.
Johnny mounted the stairs by twos, his eye widening in surprise as he saw Val Crawford at the front door of the church. The lawman -- usually unkempt and uncaring about his appearance -- was freshly turned out. He was actually wearing a suit.
“Somebody die?” Johnny asked as he came up the stairs. “Last time I saw you this slicked up, you were attendin’ a funeral.” Actually, it had been the wedding of a mutual friend.
Val smacked the youth’s flat belly. “What’s your excuse?” he teased back; his hand lifting to tug at Johnny’s tie.
The boy frowned. He jerked his head in a backwards direction towards his father. “The Old Man,” he answered in a near whisper.
“For a whole week,” Val crowed.
Johnny grinned up at the older man, the words coming in a soft sing-song. “Maybe; maybe not.”
Val’s headed canted to the right, his eyes narrowing. His fingers were still lingering on Johnny’s tie. He gave it a none-to-gentle tug. “You up to something?” he asked.
“Hell, no,” Johnny answered; doing his best to look offended.
The lawman gave the young man’s tie a final yank. He’d seen that innocent look too many times before. “I’ll bust your sorry ass,” he said.
Johnny knew it was a promise not a threat. He thought about it; right up until Val ducked inside the church for a quick look-see. Val was a stickler when it came to staying on top of things when there was a chance a stray ne-er-do-well or two could be drawn to a large community gathering.
Ned and Tim Simmons were trudging up the broad staircase. They joined Johnny on the top step; hats in hand. The elder twin leaned in, whispering in Johnny’s ear. “Heard one of them preachers sayin’ he was lookin’ forward to startin’ a school; said he had heard there were a lot of rowdies here in town in need of a firm hand.”
The brunet had shoved his Stetson back off his head and was toying with the storm strings. “That right?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “Which one?”
Tim stared out across the gathering crowd. “The old crow bait over there, talkin’ to Mayor Higgs.”
Johnny’s gaze drifted to where the rotund mayor was engaged in a lively conversation with a man Johnny immediately likened to a mortician: a tall man, dressed in black; gaunt of build with a face and an expression that indicated the man thought he had the right to judge the dead as well as the living. “He got a name?” he asked.
Ned answered the question. “Amos Beckworth. That old biddy chewin’ the fat with Widow Hargis is his wife.”
Johnny had put his hat back on. He pulled it down tight; the broad brim shadowing his eyes, which were now focused on the Widow and her companion. Two boys in their mid teens, pasty-faced and brooding, stood next to the minister’s wife. “Well, that sure looks like one big happy family,” he muttered. Like the elder Beckworth, the woman and her sons were also clad in black. He turned to face his companions. “Bet between the mayor and the Widow Hargis, that preacher and his wife got an earful about us.” As if to confirm what he was saying, Mayor Higgs and the minister turned to look in their direction.
Tim was restless; rocking back and forth, heel and toe. “Guess that makes us the rowdies,” he grinned proudly. He quickly sobered as he spied his father and Murdoch Lancer heading in their direction. “Well, guess it’s about to start,” he muttered. “Now comes the whoopin’ and the hollerin’; all the great Hallelujahs and the big amens.”
Johnny did a big double take. “Hallelujahs and amens?” he asked. Hail Mary’s he was familiar with…
Ned laughed. “Yeah. It’s what they all start hollerin’ when they’re lookin’ to be saved.”
“Saved from what?” the younger Lancer asked.
“Hell,” the Simmons’ twins answered in unison. This time they both laughed. “First you find Jesus, and then you get saved.”
Johnny cocked his head and grinned across at his companions. “Find Jesus?” he teased. “Didn’t know he was lost!”
All three youths dissolved into unrepentant laughter.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch ushered his son into the small narthex at the front of the church. “Hat,” he said, pointing to the two shelves that lined the walls. The tall Scot placed his own Stetson next to the one his son had just reluctantly surrendered.
Johnny was already beginning to feel like a wounded chick in the center of clutch of cannibalistic hens. He tugged at his father’s shirt sleeve. “Where’s T’resa and Scott?” he whispered. The idea of sitting alone in the family pew with his father was not at the top of Johnny’s current to-do list.
The big rancher was smiling as he urged his son along. “Teresa has volunteered to help entertain the smaller children outside,” he said. Reaching the Lancer family pew, he shooed the youth in first. “And Scott…”
There was a sudden hush in the shuffling of shod feet as the remainder of the congregation filled the church, the overflow lining the walls. The turnout had been greater than anticipated; and Johnny pulled a face as Murdoch prodded him to move over.
“‘Bout Scott,” Johnny tried again. He turned in his seat, his eyes sweeping the growing crowd behind him; another frown coming as he couldn’t locate his brother.
“Shhhh,” Murdoch admonished, a single finger pressed against his lips.
Reluctantly, Johnny settled in. He tugged at his collar, aware of the warmth that was building as more people crowded into the building. It seemed even warmer as he felt the sun streaming through the stained glass windows; a rainbow of colors washing across his shirtsleeve, the red seeming hotter than the rest.
Johnny turned his head, following the sound. Ned Simmons was in his place directly across the aisle from the Lancer pew, desperately trying to get his attention. The brunet leaned backwards, craning his neck as he peered around his father’s considerable frame; his forehead wrinkling as he attempted to read his friend’s frantic hand signals. Ned was pointing to the front of the room; struggling to keep the gesture private beneath a cupped palm. Johnny’s shoulders lifted in confusion. What? he mouthed silently. Ned simply rolled his eyes and slunk down in his seat.
“People!” The shuffling sounds and whispered conversations suddenly ceased as the Widow Hargis called the congregation to order. As head of the Ladies Guild, choir director and church organist, the widow took her responsibilities seriously. Lowering her head, she stared out over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses; stamping her foot for good measure to get everyone’s attention. She was unable to clap. Her right arm was in a sling. “Thank you,” she clipped. “I just wanted to announce,” she was actually smiling, “that Mr. Scott Lancer has kindly volunteered to take my place as organist.” She raised her injured arm. “He will be providing the music for services until I am recovered.” Hesitating, she beamed as the overflow crowd responded with subdued applause. She tipped her head in Scott’s direction, and then turned to the opposite side of the podium. “Mr. Reese Simmons will be leading the invocation.” she finished.
Johnny resisted the urge to slump farther back into this seat. Instead, he suddenly leaned around his father, staring hard at the Simmons twins. Nothing. Turning, he watched as Reese Simmons took his place at the pulpit and his brother slipped onto the small, swivel based stool in front of the organ. He watched as his brother stood up for a brief moment, adjusting the cushioned seat; the squeal of the rotating metal annoyingly loud. Oh, shit. he thought, fucking shit! In his mind, he could see and hear the scrabbling sound of the young skunks coming awake.
Suddenly and without warning, the younger Lancer son bolted upright, rising straight up out of his seat. “Hallelujah!” he shouted. There was more shuffling of leather and wood from across the aisle as Ned Simmons jumped to his feet. “Amen!” A third voice was heard. “Hallelujah, amen, brothers!” Tim Simmons was now on his feet beside his sibling.
Stunned, the crowd was ominously silent. And then the soft twitter began, followed by muted laughter and pointing.
Murdoch reached up, his right hand closing around his son’s wrist. “Sit down,” he huffed.
Johnny was shaking his head. “Just feelin’ the need,” he declared; “to be saved.” He risked a brief look at his father, finding no comfort in what he was seeing in the man’s stern countenance. If ever there was a time for salvation, he thought ruefully, it was now. Jesus showin’ up wouldn’t hurt either.
Already, Murdoch was getting to his feet. Pulling his son with him, he began excusing himself as he waded past the others who had crowded into the pew. As he marched his son down the aisle, he was aware that Jess Simmons and the twins were following him; and Val Crawford had fallen in at rear. Behind him, he could hear Reese Simmons restoring order.
Reese Simmons had decided to forgo the longer invocation, relying instead on a shorter version he remembered from his Sunday school days. “Lord, please be with us this day and guide our endeavors. Amen.” He turned to Scott. “Perhaps a short hymn before we start?”
Scott nodded. He reached up to open the hymnal: number 95, Breathe on Me, Breath of God. Two stanzas, three verses. He was just about to start pumping the foot pedals when he was aware of a strange scratching noise coming from beneath his feet.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“You did WHAT!?” Murdoch roared.
Johnny felt the earth beneath his feet tremble, hoping against hope it was an earthquake and the ground was actually opening up to swallow him alive. When it didn’t happen, he knew he had to answer the question. “Skunks,” he muttered. He held up his left hand, displaying the proper amount of digits. “Two of ‘em, under the organ.”
Murdoch was raking his fingers through his hair, working hard to resist the urge to snatch the curls behind his son’s ears and shake him senseless. “When?” he demanded.
“Last night,” the youth answered. “Well, early this mornin’…”
Val Crawford scratched his nose in a conscious effort to hide the smile. “I’ll be gettin’ the people out,” he said softly. He touched the brim of his hat and headed back into the church.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott had risen up from his seat, intent on finding the source of the sound he had heard earlier. He was about to investigate further when he felt a broad hand on his shoulder. Turning, he found himself staring up into the brown eyes of Val Crawford. “Val,” he greeted.
“You need to get out of here, Scott,” Val said softly. “We need everyone to get out of here.” He nodded to the open front doors.
Reese joined the two men at the organ. “What’s happened, Val?” he asked, aware that -- once again -- the crowd was growing restless.
“Your brothers and Johnny,” the lawman answered, keeping the words private. He turned away from the two men, still holding on to Scott’s arm as he moved to the pulpit. “Listen up, everyone,” he said, his tone neutral, “it’s nothin’ serious, but I need all of you to step outside.” His voice rose slightly. “One of the kids playin’ out back spotted a mama skunk and her family headin’ under the foundation.” It was a glib lie, well told. “Just get on up, all quiet like; the same way you do after Sunday services.”
Obediently, pew by pew, the parishioners quietly rose up from their seats and began their solemn pilgrimage towards the open front doors.
The skittering sound was more obvious now, and the three men -- who were now alone in the church -- exchanged wary looks. Scott led the short march down the center aisle, pausing in the narthex to grab his hat, along with his father’s and brother’s. He turned back to look at his companions. “I’m going to kill him.”
Val laughed, softly. “You’re goin’ to have to stand in line,” he muttered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Hands on his hips, Murdoch listened intently to Johnny’s confession. Scott was at his right shoulder; Jess and Reese Sullivan slightly to their left. Finally, no longer able to stand it, the Lancer patriarch grabbed his youngest by the arm and pulled him towards the widening circle of shade of the lone cottonwood. Scott, Val, and the Simmons’ followed behind him.
The whuppin’s commenced.
Scott stood to one side, Val standing close. Arms folded tightly across his chest, the blond watched in awe as his father grabbed Johnny in a tight headlock and began smacking him on his behind. The Old Man was doing an admirable job, swatting his younger son with both hands until -- winded -- he gave up and resumed the walloping with his right hand. Scott gave up counting after five.
Jess and Reese Simmons were doing a splendid job as well.
“Makes you kinda wish he was twins, don’t it?” Val asked. He had taken out a ready rolled cigarette and was lighting up.
The blond turned so quickly he felt a sharp jab at the base of his skull. “What are you,” he asked, “insane?” The idea of Johnny being a twin was definitely his worst nightmare.
Val smiled through a thin haze of blue smoke. He nodded in the direction to where the three delinquents were still getting their just due. “Well,” he drawled, “if he was twins, you’d have something to whump on, too.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Trust me, Val. My brother and I will be having a discussion about this later.”
The lawman took a final drag on his cigarette. “Like I said, Boston, get in line.” He turned slightly, his attention locked on the front stairs of the church. “Well, that solves the second problem,” he breathed.
Scott turned, following Val’s gaze. At the top of the stairs, just beyond the narrow portico, a pair of skunks sauntered into the sunshine. The animals lifted their heads, their noses twitching as they tested the air.
Already, the majority of the congregation was scattering. One by one, the buggies began to leave; the townspeople also heading off towards their homes on foot. Val, the Lancers and the Simmons’ watched as the plump polecats tentatively began their trek across the small porch. The first one took a single step forward, tumbling headfirst down the topmost stair; tucking and rolling as the downward descent continued. Right behind it, the second animal did the same. When they landed like cats in the dirt at the bottom of the stairs, both animals braced, stiff legged as they lifted their noses to get their bearing. And then, seeking out a familiar scent, the two animals -- single file -- began their quick waddle across the churchyard. They were almost prancing; stepping out as if it was a surprise when their paws touched the ground.
The pair of skunks were still intoxicated; high from the steady diet of drugged sweets they had been given, and they were staggering towards a recognizable source. They were headed straight for Johnny Lancer.
Val swore. Shoving the tail of his jacket aside, he drew his pistol. Taking aim, he thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger; twice. Both bullets hit dead on: perfect head shots.
“Damn,” Scott swore. He turned to face the sheriff. “I’m impressed.”
The lawman grinned across at his companion. “Yeah, well you’d be thinking otherwise if I’d winged ‘em!” Together, the two men headed across the yard to where Murdoch, Johnny and the Simmons’ were standing.
Murdoch had finally turned his younger son loose. Johnny, however, had remained rooted at his father’s side; and he was rubbing his back-side. Teresa had joined her younger brother and her guardian. The girl was unusually quiet and wide-eyed.
Scott approached his family, his gaze settling for a brief time on his younger brother. The boy’s ingenuity was a constant source of amusement to him; as well as a source of wonder. He leaned in to whisper into his sibling’s right ear. “You will explain your plan to me, little brother; I mean when you’re actually able to sit down?” Not waiting for an answer, he turned to his father. “I presume, sir, we’ll be going home now?”
The tall Scot gave a curt nod. “As soon as I’ve spoken to Jess and the Reverends Beckworth and McIntyre,” he answered. “Wait for me in the buggy.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
A long, thin finger, reached out to pull the canvas shade away from the leaded glass window on the second floor of Green River’s only boarding house. Pale green eyes stared down into the street, a bemused smile touching the man’s mouth as he watched the comedy unfolding beneath him. The smile faded instantly as his companion shouldered his way in front of him, pulling the shade even farther away from the glass.
Garth Fielding snorted disdainfully. A portly middle-aged man, he was clothed in the trappings of a professional gun hawk; one that was on the downward slide. “That ain’t Madrid,” he scoffed. “I’m tellin’ you, DuPree, there’s no way…” he tapped the glass with his bent forefinger, “… that kid that just got his ass whupped is Johnny Madrid.” He shifted the wad of tobacco he was chewing to his other cheek, a fresh trail of juice trailing down the corner of his mouth as he spoke. “I don’t care what the talk is in town. That ain’t him.”
There was a slight sound -- the cold chatter of glass against glass -- as Edmund DuPree pulled the stopper from the glass decanter sitting on the small round table that was centered between the two street-facing windows. When he spoke, the words came softly and with a slight accent; a curious blend of French and Castilian Spanish. “I saw them when they arrived in town, Fielding; saw the boy, the way he moves.
“It’s Madrid,” he smiled. “Healthier than I’ve seen him in a long time, and with a little more flesh on his bones.” The boy was still a thin as a rail and a bundle of nervous energy. His drink glass full, he returned to the window. Below him, he watched as the Lancer buggy headed out of town.
Fielding let out a long sigh. “Don’t make a damn to me. But if you’re wrong, compadre, the man in Mexico won’t pay.”
DuPree visibly tensed at the other man’s use of the word compadre; just as quickly relaxing when Fielding turned to face him. A handsome man with almost regal features, he smiled, his face betraying nothing of the contempt he felt for his unkempt companion. “My customer will pay, Fielding; five thousand dollars, just as promised.” It was really ten. “What you need to remember, payaso,” he used the Spanish word for buffoon, knowing the man did not understand, “is that my client wants him alive.”
Client, Fielding mused. Fuckin’ employer. “So we take him alive,” he shrugged. “Don’t matter to me, one way or the other.” Covertly, he cast his eyes in the direction of his well-dressed companion. Half-caste, he sneered. For all the fancy dress and the fancy words, DuPree was still nothing but the half-breed pup of one of Maximilians’ second-rate noblemen and some greaser whore.
DuPree’s eyes were busy as well. Long lashes hid green eyes flecked with amber; a cat-like coldness to the pale orbs. He allowed a small smile, knowing that -- once his plan was in place -- he would be rid of this cretin. “Did you recognize the lawman?” he asked.
There was a sound as Fielding spat his tobacco into the spittoon beside the dresser. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Val Crawford,” he answered. “Worked with him once, about ten years back,” he lied. “Water war.” In truth, they had been on opposite sides.
The Frenchman was removing his jacket. “He and Madrid are friends,” he observed. He turned, facing the gunfighter.
Fielding had taken out a small-bladed pocket knife and was paring a chaw off the tar-like chunk of tobacco he carried in a small, drawstring pouch. He worked the piece between his thumb and forefinger and then popped it into this mouth. “I can take care of Crawford,” he announced. To make his point, he patted the revolver that hung from his hip. “Your only sweat -- once Crawford’s out of the way -- is to take the kid.”
DuPree had hung the jacket across the back of a chair and was smoothing the shoulders. “You’ll have to call Crawford out,” he reasoned. “Create some scenario -- a little ruse --” he explained, “where it appears you have some old conflict you are seeking to resolve.”
Fielding snorted. “Told you. I can take care of Crawford!” He worked the piece of tobacco until it was comfortably nested between his right cheek and his lower jaw. “That’s what you hired me for, ain’t it?”
DuPree had settled down onto the bed. He laid back, his head cushioned by pillows. “We’ll talk in the morning,” he said.
The gun hawk knew he was being dismissed. He crossed the room to the door, opening it slightly and then peering down the hallway in both directions. This was another thing that riled him about the pompous breed; the arrogant bastard’s pretense that they did not know each other and could not stay in the same hotel. Swearing softly, he stepped out into the hallway and took his leave.
DuPree was still lying on the wide double bed. He reached out to the bedside table, picking up the thick portfolio. Opening the cardboard binder, he took out his pen and began composing the wire he would be sending, carefully choosing each word as he transcribed them:
“Item located. Implementing plan for recovery as discussed previously; delivery within fortnight. DuPree.”
Satisfied, the man closed his journal. Two weeks, he mused. In two weeks, Johnny Madrid would be on his way back to Mexico.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Teresa stood in the hallway, just beyond the closed doors to the Great Room. Beyond the thick doors, she could hear the muffled voices; surprised when the expected shouting hadn’t occurred. Still she debated; resting the tray on her cocked right hip. The coffee had been an afterthought; something she had hoped would be a diversion. She was just about to knock on the door when Maria gently grabbed her hand.
The housekeeper was shaking her head. Reaching out, she took the tray from the girl’s hand. “You have things to attend to in the kitchen, niña,” she chided. When the young woman started to protest, Maria silenced her with a stern look. “Vaya,” she ordered.
Maria waited until the young woman did as she was instructed. Then, straightening her shoulders, the woman knocked on the doors a single time. The familiar voice boomed from within, “Come!”
Johnny turned to watch as Maria came through the door. He flashed her a tenuous smile, his head dropping as the woman shook a long finger at him.
The woman placed the coffee service on Murdoch’s desk. Nodding in the direction of the clock, she spoke. It was almost five. “Dinner, Patrón,” she said softly. “Do you wish to eat at the regular time?”
Murdoch smiled. He knew exactly what it was the woman wanted to know. “Precisely at six, Maria,” he answered. “And, no, Johnny will not be joining us.” When he saw the woman’s frown, he tempered his reply. “Johnny will be having his supper in his room.”
Scott was standing at the hearth; watching the subtle combat between his father and the woman who -- he had observed from the beginning -- ran the Lancer household. His pale eyes darkened slightly as, unbidden, a thought crossed his mind. Maria was an attractive woman, still in her prime, and -- he realized -- close to his father’s age. He wondered…
“Thank you for the coffee, Maria.” Murdoch was smiling when he said the words. He was sitting perched on the corner of his desk now, his hands clasped at his waist. “Please close the doors when you leave.” The woman ran his household, and was in full command of her kitchen, but not this room. This room was his domain.
The woman sighed, deeply. Long skirt and petticoats flouncing, she turned on her heel and headed for the hallway.
Pushing himself upright from the desk, Murdoch poured the coffee, smiling broadly when he noted the tall glass of cold milk. He picked up the vessel, offering it to his younger son. “I assume this is for you.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah.” He was studying the carpet, the toe of his right boot making slow circles in the intricate pattern, his arms folded across his chest. “Well, maybe she’s like you, Old Man; got a hard time rememberin’ I been weaned.”
Murdoch returned the glass to the tray. “After the stunt you pulled today, John, I think I’d have a hard time convincing her that was true. As for myself…” he hesitated. “If you think I’m going to apologize for what occurred this afternoon, son, you are sadly mistaken.” He exchanged a long look with his elder son and continued. When he turned his gaze back to his youngest, he was met with a particularly petulant pout. His eyes narrowed. “This is how it’s going to be, John. I’ve spoken with Jess Simmons regarding what happened. Once the business of selecting the new minister is over, you and the twins are going to spend whatever time necessary in getting the old school house thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the opening of school.” He nodded in Scott’s direction. “Your brother and Reese will be supervising that job.”
Scott closed his eyes. He hadn’t seen that one coming, although he wasn’t really surprised. His position as elder brother often entailed jobs he had never envisioned; not in his wildest dreams. “Thank you, little brother,” he muttered under his breath. He decided to forego having coffee and headed for the drink table, pouring himself a healthy shot of bourbon.
“You’re fucking welcome!” Johnny shot back, swinging to face his sibling. “And don’t go worryin’ about havin’ to do any fuckin’ supervisin’, because I ain’t playin’ at any fuckin’ school cleanin’ work!!”
Oh, that’s going to cost, Scott grimaced.
Murdoch reached out, the fingers of his right hand closing around Johnny’s upper arm. “You listen to me, young man,” he thundered as he turned his son to face him. “Unless you want your backside to become intimately acquainted with my belt, I would suggest you watch your mouth! You will be working to repair and clean the school house -- and, if you are not very careful -- will also find yourself spending considerable time there as one of its new students, and that’s the end of it!”
Johnny’s faced flamed a bright red. “Fuck you!”
The silence was sudden, intense, and electrifying. Murdoch’s right eye was twitching, and his jaw was set in a grim line. The next words came in a near whisper. “Scott, if you would please excuse your brother and me.” He nodded towards the arched doorway.
Scott downed the shot of bourbon. At least his father wasn’t shouting.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny’s supper plate was sitting atop his dresser. He hadn’t eaten much. Consuming a meal while standing up was now number one on his growing list of least favorite things. It was right up there with getting his britches dusted by his Old Man.
He was standing at his bedroom window now, staring out into the darkness at the empty corral. Cipriano had personally taken Barranca back to the north pasture, and Johnny had the feeling it was going to be a long, long time before he saw the palomino again.
There was a soft tap at his door, and he debated calling out. He knew it was Scott. Then, feeling a need to talk, he relented. “Yeah?”
Scott stuck his head in the door and then opened it fully as he stepped across the threshold. He hesitated as his eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness; his gaze settling on the plate of half-eaten food. “Not hungry, little brother?” he asked.
Johnny laughed. “No point in eatin’ if there ain’t any dessert.” He remained where he was standing, leaning against the window frame; his hands stuffed into his belt.
The blond crossed the room and sat down in the bedside chair. Reaching out, he took a match from the table top, raising the globe on the kerosene lantern as he turned up the wick; a soft yellow glow spreading to drive away the shadows. Grinning up at his brother, he leaned back, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles. “Twice in one day,” he said, shaking his head. “You keep it up, little brother, and you’re going to surpass my record for the most incidents of patriarchal dispensing of severe corporal punishment.” He was smiling when he said the words.
Johnny’s eyes widened. “You tryin’ to tell me that you’ve had your ass whupped?” he asked; his tone disbelieving. “Saint Scott gettin’ his tail end beat?” he scoffed. “Don’t believe it.”
Scott held up his right hand, three fingers pointing skyward. “Three times in one day,” he boasted. He ticked the offenses off. “I was ten. It was winter. I made a supply of snowballs, one of which went through the window of the Mayor of Boston’s carriage to hit the esteemed his honor right in the face as he was waving to a constituent. Then, Grandfather caught me in his study sneaking a snifter of his fine brandy.” He looked up at his sibling. “I was cold.
“The coup de grâce came when he caught me, later that evening, taking a peek through my governess’ keyhole while she was bathing.” He laughed. “That one was worth the whuppin’.”
Johnny belly flopped down onto the bed, flipping over and sitting up on the edge of the mattress. He exhaled, puffing out a bit of wind as he eased himself into a more comfortable position. “Don’t think I’m gonna try to bust that record, brother,” he breathed. The corners of his mouth were twitching, the smile finally blossoming. “Bet ol’ Harlan can’t hold a candle to the Old Man,” he ventured, “when it comes to ‘dispensin’ severe corporal punishment’.”
Scott laughed. “Trust me. Grandfather had his moments. His weapon of choice was a razor strop.”
The brunet was shaking his head. Suddenly, his face lit up in another smile; the blue eyes dancing. “So what happened to the governess?” he asked.
There was a sound as Scott let out a soft sigh. “Grandfather terminated her services,” he smiled at the memory, “with a rather generous severance stipend. She caught me looking. And then he hired a male tutor.” That recollection caused an even broader smile. “French. He totally corrupted me when I was fifteen.”
Johnny loved it when his older brother reminisced about his youth. “How?” he asked.
Scott flicked a miniscule piece of lint off his pant leg on his right thigh. “He was my guide on a trip to the Continent. We spent the majority of our time in France, where he introduced me to all the vices in this wicked, wicked world.” He turned to face his brother. “Gambling, wine and women. Not necessarily in that order.”
The younger man laughed, the sound fading along with the smile. He was quiet a moment. “Think I could use a trip to France ‘bout now,” he breathed. Or Mexico, he pondered. “Startin’ tomorrow.
“Jeez, brother,” he sighed. “Still almost a week of that damned revival shit.”
His chin resting against his chest, Scott’s head began to rock back and forth. “Not anymore,” he said. “It seems, little brother, you managed to accomplish in one day what everyone else anticipated was going to take a full week.”
Johnny was still having difficulty finding a comfortable way to sit and levered himself up from his bed. He meandered over to the dresser, picking up a piece of cold beef from his plate, changing his mind and putting it back. “What’re you talking about?” he asked.
Scott shifted in his chair. “Reverend Beckworth sent word from town he has no intention of even considering accepting an offer to serve as minister or teacher in such a disreputable, uncivilized and backwards settlement as Green River,” he announced.
“Because of the skunks?” Johnny asked innocently; genuinely surprised. He was grinning from ear to ear.
The blond pulled himself to his feet. “Well, it probably helped somewhat when Val pulled him aside and told him you were Johnny Madrid.” He was doing a good job of hiding the smile.
Johnny reached out, punching his brother’s shoulder. “You’re full of shit!”
“The part about sending word to Murdoch is the truth,” Scott admitted. “Reverend McIntyre, therefore, has won by default.” His eyes were shining with good humor. “You’ll also be pleased to know that Mrs. McIntyre is qualified to teach, and her lovely daughter, Lottie, is her prize pupil.”
There was a shuffling sound as Johnny scuffed his heel against the plank flooring. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “No more revival.” He wasn’t about to give his smart-assed brother the satisfaction of knowing he had actually noticed the comely little blond. “But me and the twins still gotta clean the school house.”
Johnny sighed. “So how long do you think it’s gonna take?”
Scott smacked his brother’s flat belly with the back of his hand. “About twice as long as the revival would have taken,” he answered. “And, again, thank you for my appointment as your supervisor. I intend to be very diligent in my attention to fine detail and workmanship.”
Shit, Johnny thought. His brother had the annoying capability of finding a nit on a flea on a fly’s ass. “Startin’ tomorrow, I suppose.”
“Bright and early,” Scott answered. “I intend to personally see to it that over the next few weeks you are going to be far too busy to get into any more trouble, little brother.”
Maybe; maybe not, Johnny mused. The prospect of finagling a way to kiss the preacher’s daughter had suddenly tumbled unbidden into his head. He faked a yawn. “Kinda tired,” he said. He picked up the plate of uneaten food and handed it to his brother.
“Sure you are,” Scott snorted. He’d seen that innocent smirk far too many times to be fooled. “Give it a rest, Johnny,” he cautioned.
Johnny had toed off his boots and was already padding his way back towards the bed. “Sure,” he said. He turned slightly, unbuckling his belt; the calzoneras slipping a bit to rest lower on his hips. “How early?”
“Six,” the blond answered.
“Figures,” Johnny snorted. “You know, some people make a livin’ without havin’ to get up at the ass crack of dawn.”
Scott had opened the bedroom door. “No rest for the wicked,” he grinned. “Or, apparently, their big brothers.” He disappeared into the hallway, shutting the door behind him.
Johnny stepped out of his trousers. There was a bit of a chill in the night air, but he didn’t want to close the window. He decided to sleep in his shirt. Crawling beneath the multicolored quilt, he stretched out on his belly, and snuggled in.
The youth was already asleep when Murdoch entered the room. The big man moved with remarkable stealth across the polished oak. Years of having made this trek, to this room, had familiarized him with every creak, every bit of give in the twelve in wide planking. Those years, like the room, had been empty. Reaching out, he pulled the blanket up around the boy’s shoulders; shaking his head as he realized Johnny was still was only partially undressed.
He smoothed the dark hair away from the younger man’s forehead; his hand lingering a bit against the boy’s cheek. His son looked even younger when he was sleeping. He also looked uncharacteristically angelic. Murdoch smiled. Skunks, he mused, shaking his head. Well, it could have been worse. He could have burned down the church.
Johnny’s eyes flicked open as soon as he heard the door click shut. Funny, he pondered, how the Old Man’s hands could feel so different. Stung like hell when he was usin’ ‘em to wallop his ass. And just now…
Light as sunshine on his face on a cold day, he thought; and just as welcome.
He turned his head slightly, looking out through the open window; his eyes focusing on the waning new moon. This being a family shit was sure complicated, he mused. His life before had been a hell of lot simpler.
A light breeze lifted the curtains at his windows; bringing with it a small gust of cold air. He hunkered down beneath the blankets; welcoming the warmth. Simpler, he thought again, remembering the loneliness and gut-wrenching need to belong.
Somehow, complicated didn’t seem so bad.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Edmund DuPree was enjoying a late supper. He had taken a walk earlier, taking in the sights as explored the town. It was, by his usual standards, a bit more primitive than he preferred; but there were positive signs of growth. And with growth came wealth.
He had certainly observed wealth when he had ridden out and observed the Lancer hacienda. It had surprised him; as had the stories of the stubborn rancher who had defied the odds to bring home his estranged sons to successfully battle the land pirates. Murdoch Lancer, he had determined, was a worthy opponent; something that made his anticipated confrontation all the sweeter.
“Evenin’.” The voice drawled in greeting, followed by the sound of a chair being pulled out.
Surprised, DuPree looked up; seeing the star pinned on the man’s lapel. He smiled. “You move quietly, Sheriff,” he acknowledged offering his hand.
Val nodded. “It’s the job,” he said. “Name’s Val Crawford.” He removed his hat, watching for any sign of recognition; sitting down and placing the Stetson on the table at his left elbow. His right hand had disappeared beneath the table. “You’re new in town,” he observed. “Business or pleasure?”
DuPree’s smile came easily. He kept both hands occupied as he cut his steak. “Business,” he answered. The truth was always better than a lie. He put down his fork, pointing to his pocket with his left forefinger. “My card,” he said. He followed through, pulling out a small leather case. Deftly, he opened the holder and withdrew his card.
Val reached out with his left hand, one eyebrow lifting. The paper was quality vellum, almost transparent; the script elegant and the inscription in Spanish. Something instinctive prompted the lawman to play dumb. “You got one of those printed in English?” he asked. He handed the card back to the man.
DuPree’s eyes narrowed slightly. He returned the card to its case and withdrew another from the opposite side of the small folder. “Will this suffice?” he asked.
Val nodded. “Edmund DuPree,” he read. “Attorney-at-law.” This time, he kept the card, slipping it into his pocket. “You’re a long way from Mexico City,” he said.
The lawyer had resumed eating. “I am affiliated with a firm in Los Angeles,” he said.
“And your business?” Val pressed.
The smile again, not quite reaching the man’s eyes. “I am here to settle an estate,” the attorney answered; this time a half truth.
Val leaned back slightly in the chair. “You figure on bein’ here for a spell then?” he inquired.
“I should conclude my business in less than a week,” the man replied.
There was a scrape of wood against wood as Val shoved back his chair. He stood up, smiling down at the man as he picked up his Stetson and put it on. “No offense,” he said amicably. “Askin’ questions is part of the job.”
DuPree was dabbing at his chin with the checkered damask napkin. “None taken,” he responded.
Val turned from the man and made his way back across the room to the front door of the café. He could feel DuPree’s eyes on him as he departed; too much scrutiny, he knew, for a man on a simple legal matter. The man would bear watching.
The lawyer eased back in his chair, making it easier for the young waitress to refill his coffee cup. It was amazing what could be picked up by simply observing and listening to people. He smiled. It was going to work out even better than he had anticipated. The town had been alive with gossip since the little fiasco at the church; titillating tales of Murdoch Lancer’s wild teen-aged son and the rancher’s attempt to reform the former pistolero. The big Scot had decided on a firm hand -- that much was evidenced by what had happened earlier in the day -- and a rigid set of rules.
It was the talk of the town now. Johnny Madrid, the young gunfighter and heir to a great fortune, was going to spend the next week or more right here in Green River, performing penance for a boyish prank. It was all falling neatly into place.
DuPree sipped the last of his coffee. Tomorrow it would begin. True to his word, in two weeks time, he would return Johnny Madrid to Mexico.