Usual disclaimers: Not Mine, Don’t make any money. Still belongs to FOX.
Funny what you find on a laptop you’re planning on scrapping and haven’t cracked open in well over a year.
Younger Johnny; learning the rules and not liking it one bit. The horse breaking method mentioned within was a standard practice on the western plains; not much discussed but a reality. My father was in his mid-forties when I was born, and one of my earliest memories – during a fox hunt (not the horse and rider thing; a hunt for foxes that had been raiding the chicken pens) – is a discussion he had with the stockyard cowboys about the time they had spent breaking and shipping horses for the US Cavalry for use overseas during WWI. There was no “horse-whispering”; just down and dirty getting the job done. So be forewarned.
Maria Larrea y la Puente, the unquestioned mistress of Lancer’s magnificent hacienda and surrogate mother to Murdoch Lancer’s recently returned sons, was not a happy woman. Supper had been prepared; the soup had been served and eaten, and – once again – Johnny had not made it to the table on time.
She knew his tardiness was intentional. Although the youth had arrived home in tandem with his elder brother and well ahead of the designated dinner hour, the boy had purposely dawdled behind in the barn.
The woman sighed. In Juanito’s world, only two things mattered at the dinner table: the main course and dessert. Eyes narrowing, she picked up the meat platter from the counter beside the stove and headed for the Great Room. Her suspicions were immediately confirmed when she carried the roast to the table.
Johnny, his chin dipping against his chest and a slight smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, was just sliding into the chair next to Teresa. “Sorry,” he murmured.
"Tan apesadumbrado como usted va a ser, niño,” (Not as sorry as you’re going to be, boy,) Maria announced, plunking the serving platter down on the table in front of the Patrón. She turned on her heel and stalked back toward the kitchen.
Murdoch fought the grin that was threatening to blossom into a full blown smile, his cheeks dimpling. He said nothing, choosing instead to concentrate on carving the roast.
Johnny leaning back in his chair and was staring hard at the archway that separated the Great Room from the hallway leading into the kitchen. Maria had already disappeared from his line of vision, but it was clear from the expression on his face the impact of her poorly veiled threat was still on his mind.
Then, realizing Maria had chided him for his late arrival, but his father had not; he shifted forward in his seat and dropped his head to stare into his plate. “Might as well get it said, Murdoch,” he breathed, bracing himself for the anticipated ass-chewing. He was getting pretty good at pretending to listen when the Old Man was lecturing him about the rules.
Murdoch handed off a plate to Teresa. He continued to serve up the roast. “I’m quite sure Maria isn’t done with you yet, son,” he observed drolly. When he passed the next plate to his younger son, he was smiling. “I don’t see anything to be gained in the two of us calling you to task for failing to get to the table on time; so I believe I’ll just leave the matter in her capable hands.” The smile disappeared as he managed what he hoped was an intimidating frown. “This time.”
Surprised by the reprieve, Johnny began piling mashed potatoes next to the stack of rare beef at the center of his plate. “Wouldn’t be late if she’d skip the damned soup and get straight to the good stuff,” he muttered. “Hey!” Lifting his arm, he tried unsuccessfully to block Scott’s smooth from-across-the-table delivery of a spoon full of spring peas clumped together in a bland looking white sauce.
Scott grinned at his brother. He promptly held up his right hand, three fingers extended. “You know the rules, Johnny,” he teased. “Maria expects to see three things on that plate, not just meat and potatoes.”
Johnny had just taken a long drink of milk. He made a big production of dabbing at his upper lip with his napkin before speaking. “You bein’ a Harvard graduate and all, big brother, I’d think you’d at least know how to count,” he jibed. Using his knife, he began the inventory. “Meat, potatoes and gravy,” he gloated. “You can take back the peas.” He smiled as if he had just won the biggest prize at the church social.
Teresa stifled a giggle. She loved it when her brothers engaged in their little contests, the verbal sparring. “It’s not going to kill you, Johnny, to at least try them,” she smiled. Her eyes were dancing now. Sighing, her right shoulder hitched in a small shrug, and the teasing was in her voice. “Well, we’ll have more green beans coming in soon, and we all know how much you love those…”
Murdoch paused in his eating, watching his son’s face. Even as a toddler, his younger son had displayed an aversion to cooked vegetables, something that had caused the man both frustration and no small amount of amusement. The memory of a still-teething Johnny toddling behind Maria in the garden; gumming a spring-fresh carrot, dirt and all, came to mind. The recollection sparked another image; his now grown son gnawing on blades of grass or the wooden draw-bead on the storm strings on his stetson. A smile touched his broad countenance, and it grew when Johnny turned to him; the boy’s expression wavering between begging or outright belligerence.
Johnny was pouting.
The older man shook his head; stopping the words before the boy could speak. “Eat your peas,” he ordered, nodding toward the youth’s plate.
Scott put down his wine glass, a bemused grin warming his pale eyes as he came slightly forward in his chair. Mentally, he was patting himself on the back. Johnny, he observed proudly, was wisely following a bit of big-brotherly advice he had recently bestowed on his sibling: choose your battles. In fact – for once – Johnny was actually doing exactly as he had been told.
Grimacing, Johnny took a tentative bite of the creamed peas; his face registering something akin to disbelief as he realized the combination of flavors was really quite tasty. The benign looking white sauce had been seasoned with fresh cracked pepper corns and the sea salt Maria favored; and it was good. Not that he would admit it. Swallowing, he turned his attention to his brother. “We gonna finish that game of sheepshead we started last night?” he asked. He began shoveling in the food at his usual rate; one bite after the other.
The blond nodded his head. Sheepshead was a game he had learned during his time in the cavalry; a card game taught to him by his German first sergeant during a long, stormy lull during his first winter campaign. More complex than poker, the game required planning and strategy; especially in its two-handed version. It also taught patience, not one of Johnny’s strongest attributes.
Scott eyed his brother. Johnny had been a quick study when he taught him the game; although the boy was still working at mastering the fortitude part. “I think you’re ready for the more serious version of the game,” he smiled. “Say, a penny a point?”
Surprisingly, Johnny had already finished eating. Aware of the sweet aroma of Maria’s dried apple pie, and in anticipation of a large serving, he pushed his empty plate away, his eyes dancing. There was nothing he loved more than Maria’s desserts, unless it was the opportunity to take money from his brother. It was a definite win-win situation. “Why not?” he grinned.
Murdoch cleared his throat. He dabbed at the corner of his mouth with his napkin; moving slightly as Maria picked up his plate and began clearing the table. “I’m afraid your card game is going to have to wait,” he began. “Aggie sent word Carl Bannerman is holding his auction Spanish Wells this coming weekend instead of on the 15th. We’re going to have to make some decisions regarding which animals we’re going to take; and which ones we’ll put up individually as opposed to selling in lots.”
Maria had returned with a tray bearing a pot of fresh coffee, the silver creamer and matching sugar bowl and a full glass of cold milk. “Do you want me to serve dessert over there?” she asked, nodding towards the couch.
The tall Scot was already shoving back his chair. “Yes,” he answered. “Please.” And then, gesturing towards fireplace. “Boys.” Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the coffee tray and led the way from the table.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was standing at the hearth. Glass of milk in hand, he had positioned himself so he had a good view of the doorway to the hallway. Mamácita was sure taking her own sweet time deliverin’ the dessert.
There was a soft ching as Scott tapped his spoon against the brim of his cup. “If I remember right, sir, you said Bannerman deals in both horses and cattle?”
Murdoch nodded. He was seated in the big leather chair beside the fireplace; his feet up, ankles crossed, resting on the matching ottoman. There was a slight hesitation before he replied; the words coming with a trace of humor. “Bannerman will auction off anything in close proximity to his podium that isn’t nailed down.” He chuckled. “But he knows how to work a crowd; and he has done well by Lancer.”
A soft rustling of fabric caused both men to look up; Scott turning slightly to smile at Teresa as she stepped down into the room. She was carrying a small tray; the fragrance of apples, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon seeming to precede her like incense. Her first stop was at Murdoch’s chair. She handed him the full plate; smiled, and then turned to Scott. Bending forward slightly, she passed the second dessert to her brother; along with a heavy damask napkin. “Maria said to tell you, you better not share.”
Scott’s right eyebrow lifted slightly and he took a deep breath; his mouth forming a silent “oh” as he realized there was no third serving of dessert on the tray.
Johnny was still at the hearth; but no longer leaning against the mantle. “Where’s my pie?” he demanded.
Teresa was smoothing her skirt and looking everywhere but at her sibling. “Maria said until you learn to come to the table on time, you won’t be having any dessert!” The words tumbled out, louder than she intended. Her message delivered, the girl quickly excused herself and almost ran from the room.
“Well, that ain’t gonna fly!” Johnny slammed down his glass of milk and started after the girl, intent on following in her wake. Hell, he’d eaten light at supper, figuring on a double serving of dessert.
The single word, the slight hint of warning in the voice, was enough to stop the young man’s flight. He came to an abrupt halt; standing his ground but keeping his back to his father as he attempted to rein in his temper. His feet were willing to yield; but his mouth… “Yeah?”
Scott’s chin dropped against his chest, his eyes closing as he recognized the petulance in his brother’s voice. His untouched plate of pie rested heavily against his right thigh.
Murdoch took a calming sip of coffee before he spoke. “Come sit down,” he ordered. “We have business to discuss.”
The room suddenly seemed charged with raw energy; as if all the moisture had been sucked from the air and a dozen stray cats were slinking their way beneath the upholstered furniture; static electricity snapping and crackling in the cold evening quiet. It was a sensation that did little to calm the youngest Lancer son. Finally, knowing it would be useless to argue the importance of satisfying his sweet tooth; the younger man gave in and turned back to where his father was sitting.
Scott patted the cushion to his left; suppressing a grin when Johnny cut in front of him and plopped down on the right, at the corner of the couch farthest from their father. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his brother’s face; the frown. He inhaled, debating his options, the forefinger of his right hand caressing the rim of his still full dessert plate. “Here,” he said softly, handing the pie off to his brother.
Shaking his head in amusement, Murdoch eyed his elder son. “You did hear what Teresa said about not sharing,” he asked; “what Maria said about not sharing?”
Laughing, Scott nodded his head. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “And I considered my options very carefully.” He turned, grinning at his brother, who was already two healthy bites into the thick pastry; which he was holding in the palm of his hand. “Facing the wrath of Maria, or dealing with Johnny’s foul mood because he was denied his dessert.” He elbowed Johnny in the ribs. “A thank you is in order, little brother,” he chided, “and you could at least use the fork.”
Johnny’s response to his brother’s attempted humor was to pointedly lick the thick pie juice from the middle finger of his right hand. One more bite was all it took to finish the slab of pastry. No longer content to lick his sticky fingers, he looked around for something to swipe his hands on; anything but his own trousers.
“Don’t even think about it,” Scott warned; shaking out the napkin that had been resting across his slim thigh and handing it off. He watched as Johnny mopped his face, shaking his head as the boy got to his feet and went in search of his glass of milk; which was sitting on the mantle. Johnny took a great swallow, gagging when he realized the milk was now room temperature. He immediately turned to the hearth and spat it out.
Murdoch finished his now tepid coffee; the annoyance he was feeling evident as he firmly set the cup back on the saucer, the clatter of china against china cutting into quiet. He could now add warm milk to the list of things his son obviously disliked. Mentally, he also wondered how long it would be until Johnny – his wild, green-broke son -- was going to be completely housebroken. Determined to take care of business, he shook the thought away. “Now that we’ve finished with dessert,” he began, his deep voice booming into the gathering darkness, “we need to discuss just what we’re going to do at Bannerman’s auction.”
Johnny had returned to the couch. He sat down, leaning forward, elbows on his knees; the fingers of his left hand busy with the multi-colored beads on his right wrist. “Is Aggie goin’?” he asked.
Scott turned to look at his brother. The question sounded innocent enough, but Johnny had that look about him: the one that usually signaled some mischief was afoot. “It’s a livestock auction, brother,” he breathed. “Aggie raises livestock.”
Johnny shrugged. “Yeah; cows, horses. She bids on ‘em, too;” his lips were twitching now, and he was fighting the laughter; “unless she sends in some ringer to set up the Old Man.” The memory of the first auction he and Scott had attended with Murdoch and everything that had come afterwards hit him at the strangest times. Sometimes, when he and Scott were working together, they would think of it at the same, precise moment; and without saying a word would both dissolve into rib-busting fits of laughter. He snuck a look at his brother, and they both lost it.
Murdoch was well aware of what his sons were thinking. He had his own memories of their first auction as a family and everything that had occurred afterwards. God, it had been satisfying to knock Buck Addison on his pompous ass; and even more gratifying later when Aggie had the marriage annulled and sent the man packing. Murdoch cleared his throat, summoning himself and his boys back to the here and now. “The Circle C and Lancer will be selling livestock in Spanish Wells; not buying,” he announced firmly; “starting with two weanling bull calves from the dairy herd.”
The two brothers exchanged glances. Scott was the first to speak. “Just two?” he asked, smiling. Lancer’s dairy herd had been scattered far afield when Pardee’s high riders had first begun their attacks; the raiders underestimating the value of a breed only recently introduced to the far west. Recovering the surviving Jersey seed bull, the milch cows and their disbanded offspring had been one of his and Johnny’s first assignments.
Normally even-tempered and docile, the Jerseys had proved as agile as the beef cattle. They also tended to be more intelligent; wily almost. Smaller, less bulky than the cattle being raised for meat, the animals had given the vaqueros and the Patrón’s sons a frustrating chase before they were finally corralled.
“Yeah,” Johnny piped up. “We got three weanling Jersey bull calves,” he said. “How you gonna pick which ones you’re gonna put on the block?”
Murdoch came forward in his chair; levering himself upright to ease the tingling sensation in his bad hip. The prickling coursed down the outer side of his leg to the tip of his little toe. “We’ll just keep the one you’re always threatening to shoot; the one that keeps breaking through that fence you’re always mending,” he replied, smiling when Johnny pulled a face. “He’s the sturdiest of the lot. When the time comes, he’ll earn his keep as our stud.”
“Not if I cut his balls off,” Johnny muttered under his breath. He hated the calf. It was bad enough it kept busting out of the pasture; but the damned thing created all kinds of hell when it was on the loose. Once the early vegetables had started coming in, it had gotten even worse; and Maria had even suggested Johnny and the calf were working in concert to destroy her garden. “Little bastard,” he griped, remember the housekeeper’s last scolding.
Scott popped his brother’s knee with the back of his hand; just hard enough to stop the grumbling. “You’ve had offers for the calves before, Murdoch. Why now?”
Murdoch decided he’d had enough coffee and rose up from his chair; heading for the decanter of Glenlivet. “We’ve got new families moving into the valley; buying up small tracts from the larger operations that folded when Pardee first hit. The Jerseys are more suited to smaller farms; and they require less graze than the cattle we’re raising for meat.” He paused to pour a drink; savoring a sip before continuing. “We’ll sweeten the pot; and market a half dozen of the unbranded heifers we gathered up when we were collecting strays.” Smiling, he saluted his sons with his glass. “We’ll get a good price, too.”
Johnny was getting impatient with all the talk about the damned Jerseys. “We gettin’ rid of some of the pigs?” he ventured; his tone hopeful. The porkers were even lower on his list than the milch cows; and the task of cleaning out the pens was – it sometimes seemed – his father’s favorite form of punishment when he or Scott stepped out of line.
Murdoch was shaking his head. Pork was a mainstay as part of the diet for the hacienda’s core families; the smoked hams and side meat the preferred winter meats. “No pigs,” he said. “Or chickens, for that matter,” he declared, raising his hand before Johnny had a chance to ask. “But we will be selling some horses.”
Restless, Johnny got to his feet. “We’ve already culled the horses we’re sellin’ to the Army,” he said, thinking aloud. “Figured the ones we’re still workin’ on were goin’ to be added to the remuda.”
Scott rose up from his place on the couch; sharing a quick look with his father before speaking. “We’ve got more a hundred animals in the pastures south of the barn,” he began; “and another twenty in the main paddock.” He was at the drink table now, helping himself to a measure of scotch.
“And the half-dozen I’m still workin’ on in the small corral,” Johnny reiterated. He had joined his brother, the fingers of his right hand curled around the stopper on the small decanter of tequila. Without thinking, he uncorked the jug and took a long drink; straight from the bottle.
The sound of Murdoch loudly clearing his throat was enough to stop Johnny’s swig midswallow. Sighing, he lowered the decanter; but not before swiping the lip of the bottle with his sleeve. He was about to replace the stopper when his father handed him an empty shot glass. The gesture surprised him, but he poured himself a half-measure.
“We’re going to take those six animals to Spanish Wells,” Murdoch announced.
Johnny’s head snapped up. “I told you I was still workin’ those animals.”
The room fell silent, Murdoch and Scott exchanging yet another covert glance. Scott was aware of his father’s subtle nod and took the floor. “It’s been two weeks, Johnny; and you’ve spent the majority of your time working on that wall-eye.” He was speaking softly; hoping to avoid what he knew was going to become an argument.
“Didn’t know you were payin’ such close attention to how I spend my time, Boston.” Johnny declared; the words tinged with annoyance.
Scott was careful to keep his tone neutral. “It’s not your time I’ve been paying attention to, brother,” he intoned. “It’s the number of times that horse has put you on the ground, or into the fence.” His voice lowered even more. “You’re not going to win this one, Johnny. Every time you get on that animal, it fights you.” He smiled, but the warmth didn’t quite reach his eyes. “If Paco hadn’t intervened the last time you tried to ride that beast, we would have been scraping you up in pieces from the corral floor.”
Johnny’s temper flared. “If Paco’d kept his fuckin’ nose out of it, I’d been back on top of that horse, and I’d have gotten the job done!”
Scott was shaking his head. “That horse put you in the dirt and tried its best to stomp you into a very deep hole,” he countered. Reaching out, he grabbed his brother’s left shoulder; a move that produced a deep hiss of pain from his younger sibling. “As it was, it managed to take a good swipe at you with its teeth.” It was true. The paint had immediately turned on Johnny, ears flat and teeth bared, its nose snaking along the ground in hard pursuit as the youth barrel-rolled across the corral to escape beneath the fence. The horse never broke stride, eleven hundred pounds of pure fury colliding with the side rails and splintering two boards.
Ignoring the pain, Johnny wrenched free. “I can break that horse,” he declared stubbornly.
The flesh beneath Murdoch’s right eye had begun to twitch. He hadn’t known about the bite, and the not knowing riled him. When he spoke, however, he was careful to not betray what he was feeling. “I’ve talked to Cipriano and Paco regarding that animal, and they are both in agreement. The horse is not worth the time that’s been invested in attempting to bring it around.”
Johnny’s face clouded. “Just because Paco’s scared shitless by that caballo,” he groused, “don’t mean I gotta back off.” His voice lowered, but his tone was confrontational. “And since when does Cip -- or Paco -- got any say in what horse I decide to bust?”
Murdoch’s back stiffened. “You’ve got a long way to go, John, before you question any decision Cipriano makes out there,” he gestured with his arm towards the gathering darkness beyond the French doors; “and – rather you agree or not – Paco’s instincts regarding the paint have nothing to do with his being afraid.” He paused, choosing his next words carefully; his voice softening. “This isn’t about if you can or can’t break that horse, son; it’s about knowing when you’ve done all you can, and accepting that it’s time to quit.”
Although the rebuke had been considerably tempered, the brief flash of hurt showed on the younger man’s face; to be quickly replaced by a look of belligerence. “I’m breakin’ that horse, Murdoch.”
Scott had just poured himself a second drink. He downed it in a single swallow. “Murdoch’s right, Johnny. This isn’t about the little game you and Paco have been playing to determine who’s best at the job. It’s a business decision. Let it go.”
Adamant, Johnny shook his head. “I’m breakin’ that fuckin’ horse!”
Murdoch reached out, restraining Scott as the younger man stepped forward. He hadn’t been aware Johnny and Paco were engaged in any boyish competition over their horse breaking skills. Waving his elder son aside, he turned his full attention to his youngest boy. “You will not ride that horse again, John. It will be going, as is, to the auction in Spanish Wells. ”
Johnny stood before his father; feeling like some green kid who had just been called to task for failing the simplest of barn chores, swamping out the stalls. He struggled to swallow back his growing anger; feeling pressured from all sides. It didn’t help that the pissing contest he and Paco were involved in over the horses now stood at a draw. The piebald was the tie-breaker; and he couldn’t let it go. “I got a third share in this ranch,” he began, the words a mere whisper; “ain’t that right?”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed but quickly relaxed. “The agreement stands, John. You know that.”
Johnny cast an eye in his elder brother’s direction. “Then I want a vote,” he said.
Scott was staring into his empty drink glass; his face betraying nothing of what he was feeling. He was painfully aware of what his brother was hoping for; and the reason why. The competition between Johnny and Paco had been a source of amusement in the beginning; something he and Mateo had accepted as a shared burden as elder brothers, but it had recently gotten out of hand.
Murdoch straightened; his head canted slightly as he considered the situation. By rights, as the agreed upon tune caller, he could simply stick to his original declaration. He decided not to exercise that option; choosing instead to put the matter on the table. “All right. We’ll vote.” He turned to his elder son. “Scott.”
The young man’s words came with no hesitation. The image of Johnny rolling away from the crazed horse was still fresh in Scott’s mind. “Auction,” he declared, his voice resonating.
“Then it’s two to one,” Murdoch said. He stepped away from his younger son. “The matter is no longer open to discussion.”
Johnny swore. There was no way he was giving up. He reached out, snagging his father’s shirt sleeve; immediately letting go. “You tell me one time I ain’t been able to bust a horse, Murdoch,” he groused. “You tell me one god-damned time I haven’t been able to break any horse we brought in…”
Murdoch was determined the conversation about the horse was not going to continue; or to escalate into a shouting match. He leveled his gaze at his youngest boy, saying nothing and simply shaking his head. Then, turning to his elder son: “Scott, I believe you were one up when we finished our last game of chess. What do you say to giving your Old Man a chance to get even?” He nodded to the chess table in the corner beside the fireplace.
Scott nodded his acceptance. He crossed the few steps to the game table and began arranging the pieces. “White or black, sir?” he asked.
Murdoch was refilling the drink glasses. “White,” he answered.
Johnny’s temper had reached its zenith. He moved close to his sibling. “Thanks for the vote, brother; and for tellin’ the Old Man and me about Paco,” he seethed; smarting over the perceived betrayal. Then, yielding to his anger, he reached out; using his right arm to sweep the chess pieces from the table and onto the floor.
Murdoch’s response surprisingly swift and direct. In two great strides, he crossed the floor to where his sons were standing; reaching out to grab Johnny’s arm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scott already stooping to pick up the scattered pieces of ivory and ebony. “Leave them,” he ordered. Glaring at his youngest boy, he issued the next ultimatum. “Pick them up. Now!”
Scott had levered himself erect. He exhaled, slowly, studying his brother’s face. All this over a damned horse, he fumed; a damned horse and a boy’s smarting pride.
Johnny was clenching and unclenching his fists; his chin dropping against his chest, his posture tense. It appeared for a fraction of a second he was going to bolt; until Murdoch whispered the words ‘Now, John’ in the familiar tone that clearly indicated he would brook no further rebellion. Angrily, the boy picked up the playing pieces, stubbornly hesitating before he put them in their proper places on the board. And then he stormed from the room.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He gave the customary warning, a short series of hard knuckle raps on the oaken door as he passed by; stopping dead in his tracks when there was no response. There was only silence; no dull thud of a pillow against the heavy wooden portal, nor the usual muffled, dire threats of great bodily harm. Scott took a deep breath; and then turned the knob. Stepping across the threshold, he went directly to the bed, and swore; softly. “Damn it, Johnny.” Even before he reached out to touch his brother’s pillow, he knew it would be cold.
Out of habit, he restored some order to his brother’s bed; smoothing the quilt in place before leaving the room. His pace quickened as he headed for the stairs, and he reached the bottom in record time.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee greeted him as he entered Maria’s domain; and he quickly made his way to the stove. He paused just long enough to give the housekeeper a quick kiss on the cheek, smiling when she reached up without turning around to pat his face. “Have you seen Johnny?” he asked.
The woman’s left eyebrow arched, and she shook her head. Already, she had poured the coffee. “He has quarreled with his Papa again,” she murmured. “Over the caballo loco.”
Nothing, Scott knew, ever escaped the diminutive housekeeper’s vigilant observance of her family. “And with me,” he confessed. He took a long drink of the coffee, welcoming the jolt to his system. He had the feeling he was in for a very long day.
Maria sighed. She had tended the bite on Johnny’s shoulder after the incident in the corral; and had voiced her displeasure over his stubborn determination to break the animal. Johnny had cajoled her into promising she would not tell his father what had happened; and she now regretted that decision. There would have been an abrupt end to all the foolishness, had she reported the injury. “You need to find your brother,” she said. She began building a flatbread sandwich; liberally spooning scrambled eggs, bacon and fried potatoes into a still warm flour tortilla.
Nodding, Scott picked up the savory treat. The sudden rattle of the water pipes stirred him into action. “Murdoch’s shaving,” he said. “I’ll have a little time.”
Patting the young man’s back, Maria shooed him towards the back door. “Check with Cipriano,” she urged.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Having finished his rounds, Scott hesitated just outside the kitchen door, taking a deep breath before turning the knob. He stepped into the room and found himself face to face with his father; who was in his usual seat at the head of the table. Removing his stetson and gloves and placing them on the seat of Johnny’s chair, he nodded in greeting. “Sir.”
Murdoch was stirring cream into his coffee. “I stopped by your brother’s room,” he began, tapping the spoon against the edge of the cup.
Scott eased into his chair, shaking his head when Teresa offered him the plate of eggs. “I’ve eaten,” he said. “I could use some more coffee though, please.” He stalled as Teresa fetched the coffee pot and filled his cup. Then, knowing there was no point in delaying the inevitable, he broke the news. “Johnny’s gone,” he announced. “Barranca’s not in the barn,” he hesitated, “and the paint is gone from the breaking pen.”
“Oh, shit!” This from across the table, whisper soft.
“Terésa!” Maria quickly crossed the room, smacking the back of the young woman’s hand with her wooden spoon.
Embarrassed, Teresa’s cheeks flushed a bright scarlet; but she recovered. She risked a conciliatory smile towards her guardian, who was frowning. “I’m sorry. It’s just…” She shrugged and began toying with her eggs.
Scott struggled with the smile that was threatening to erupt. He’d spoken the exact same words when he discovered the horses were gone. A sidewise glance at his father was more than enough to snap him to the here and now.
Murdoch was carefully refolding his napkin; a good indication he had lost his appetite. “Did you speak with Cip?”
Scott nodded. There was, he knew, no point in lying or sugar-coating the facts. “With Cip, Mateo and Paco,” he replied; “along with a half dozen of the other vaqueros. No one heard or saw anything.”
Murdoch’s expression was grim. “So before the day has even started, your brother has not only managed to break the rule regarding being at the table on time for meals, but has gone off alone without telling anyone where he was heading. And with that damned horse.” There was a huffing sound as the big man exhaled. He shoved back his chair. “We’re going to find your brother,” he said, rising to his feet. “And then he and I are going to have a very long discussion regarding his recent conduct.” He headed for the doorway.
Teresa sighed, but this time she didn’t curse. “Try to bring him back alive, Scott, will you?” She was only half-joking.
Scott levered himself up from his chair; grabbing his stetson and his gloves. He leaned over the table, planting a kiss on the girl’s forehead. “I’ll do my best,” he promised.
“Scott!” The voice boomed from the front atrium.
The blond sighed. He’d been right. It was going to be a long day; a very long day.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The palomino was picking its way through the loose gravel, working its way diagonally down the side of a steep incline; ears forward and skittish on the unfamiliar terrain. Behind the horse, a second animal followed; its hide already marbled with white foam. The paint was fighting the tether; trying hard to set its feet against the loose shale. Time and again, the wall-eyed gelding fought the rope; tossing its head wildly.
Vindictive, Johnny Lancer gave the reata a vicious tug. His right shoulder felt like it was on fire from the constant jostling; the eleven hundred pound horse with its powerful neck fighting him the whole time.
He was relieved when they reached the canyon floor: a sensation of calm flooding him as the pressure on the rope eased. Rolling his shoulders, he momentarily relaxed.
Big mistake. The paint suddenly reared up; pawing the air. The animal’s massive head swung left and then right. Johnny found himself sailing backwards in the saddle; instinct prompting him to immediately dally the rope around the saddle horn and to kick free from both stirrups as he surrendered to gravity. The flying through the air wasn’t so bad. It was the sudden impact with the hard-packed caliche when he landed that hurt like hell.
Winded, he lay there for a time; gasping for air. Around him, Barranca and the paint were doing a crazy dance; both animals sparring like stallions fighting for their harems. He rolled over on his side, tucking and rolling as the palomino clipped his right knee with its left rear hoof; covering his ears when the grunting and blowing increased and sounded much too close.
Johnny felt a raw dragging across his forehead as the leather reata that was tied to the paint went momentarily slack and raked across his face; and he swore. Dust swirled up all around him, covering his face; clogging his nose and filling his mouth. He turned his head, spitting into the dirt; and then attempting to whistle. The results were pathetic; and he spat some more, licked his lips and tried again. Nothing but a feeble flutter.
Forcing himself to his feet, he sucked in a deep lungful of air. Wiping his lips with his sleeve, he sucked at his tongue in an attempt to generate more some spit and then, spreading his lips with two fingers, he gave it one more try.
The sharp, shrill whistle sounded along the full length of the canyon, echoing off the walls and repeating again and again like the eerie cry of a banshee. It was effective almost immediately. Barranca dropped stiff-legged to the ground, the animal’s head coming up; ears forward and at full alert. In spite of the paint gelding that was now circling the palomino; the golden horse stood stock still, waiting.
Crooning softly, Johnny approached the two animals, wary as he watched the paint. The piebald’s sides were heaving; its coat glistening wet beneath the early morning sun. Its distinctive walleye had an ominous pearl-like whiteness to it, and Johnny couldn’t help but think of a dying French mercenario (mercenary) he had watched bleed to death in the street in the little village where he had been living when he was eight or nine. The paint’s eye had that the same look; of death, and an evil beyond the world of the living.
Johnny realized the piebald was watching him, too. He could see there was absolutely no fear in the animal’s eyes; none of the apprehension that was always there when a horse was first captured. No, what he saw was pure wickedness. Wickedness and hate.
The thought sobered him; almost as much as it pissed him off. Paco had told him the animal was possessed by un espíritu malo (a bad spirit); that the horse would never be right, and he had refused to listen.
Well, fuck that. Paco didn’t know shit about this horse; and he was going to prove it.
Reaching out, Johnny collected the second lariat from Barranca’s saddle and looped it over his right shoulder. And then he swung himself aboard the palomino. Gathering up the slack on the leather reata, he touched his heels to Barranca’s sides, nudging the palomino forward. They had a bit to go yet before they reached their destination.
Johnny turned around in the saddle, his eyes narrowing as he grinned at the paint. “There’s more’n one way to break a horse, diablo.” He laughed then, coldly. “You ain’t gonna like it, but I’m gonna get ‘er done. One way or the other.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They were together in the Great Room, studying the recent survey map of Lancer; Murdoch’s long index finger tapping against an area north of Cedar Creek. “I’m going to send Mateo and Frank up to Modoc Charlie’s,” he said. “If Johnny is planning to work with that horse, he’s going to need someplace with decent graze and water. There’s a small box canyon here…” he indicated the place with his finger, “…where he could camp out. It would be an easy thing to block the entrance; keep the paint under control.” The place, however, was only one of many where Johnny could find similar terrain.
Scott considered his father’s words. “Why Mateo and Frank, sir, and not us?”
Murdoch didn’t hesitate in answering. “Charlie doesn’t welcome too many people at his place, Scott; but Cip and his boys – and Frank – are among the favored few. As for you and I,” his forefinger was moving across the map again; “we’ll be heading up here.” The single digit rested on a spot where they had recently restored an old line shack. “Slip Tanner and Walt went up there two weeks ago; cleaned up the place and added an attached lean-to and a small paddock. Your brother hasn’t been up there, but he knows about it.” His face clearly showing frustration, he leaned forward in his chair. Using his finger again, he drew a rough circle with the main hacienda at its epicenter. “There are five similar places within this circle where Johnny could have gone; and we’ll send the rest of the crews to those locations as well.”
Scott did some mental mathematics. Seven different places where Johnny may or may not have taken the piebald; a search that was going to require reassigning at least fourteen men that were needed elsewhere. But it was a long established rule. No one from Lancer ever rode out alone; the men always working in teams of two or more. It was also a rule Johnny was constantly testing. “He’s got a pretty decent start on us, Murdoch.”
The older man nodded. He eased his long frame up out the chair, grimacing a bit at the old familiar pain in his lower back and hip. “With the exception of Mateo and Frank, I’m going to assign three men to each of the other crews.” His expression hardened; the concern evident. “If Johnny’s managed to get himself hurt, we’ll need the extra help.”
The unwelcome information caused Scott to recalculate. The count was now up to twenty. “I had Maria pack the necessary supplies,” he said quietly, knowing he wouldn’t have to elaborate.
Murdoch pushed back his chair and pulled himself erect. “Cip’s already arranged supplies for the other vaqueros.” Each crew would have their own pack horse.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was in a foul mood when he reached the wheel-rutted road that led to the newly renovated line shack. He had purposely taken a long detour to reach this point, cutting through the rock and scrub strewn hills in a determined attempt to leave as little sign as possible. The knowledge his brother and his father would be looking for him had prompted the decision; along with the hope his deception and a hundred thousand acres would be enough to give him the needed time.
It hadn’t been easy. The piebald was a bitch to lead; and spooky as hell the deeper they had gotten into the hills. Barranca was being a handful as well. The palomino reacted badly to the other animal’s cantankerous behavior; responding in kind when the paint became aggressive, and twice Johnny had been forced to dismount.
For a short time, once they had reached the friendlier terrain, both horses finally seemed to have settled. It was, however, a brief respite. Picking up the scent of water, the sweat-streaked paint made a break; charging ahead at a full run. The quickness of the animal’s sudden flight caught the young man unprepared, the plaited reata pulling tight across his right thigh as the horse came up from behind and swerved to his left. He had no choice but to quickly uncoil the rope from around the saddle horn; a sharp hiss coming as the lariat burned a furrow in his leather pant leg, the friction so intense it caused a brief puff of smoke. The odor was the same as the smell of a hot running iron against hair and flesh.
Cursing, Johnny shrugged his second rope from his right shoulder and began shaking out a wide loop. He touched his spurs to Barranca’s sides, urging the big palomino into a full run. The pounding of shod hooves beat a steady, harsh tattoo against the packed earth, Johnny leaning forward in the saddle; the rope singing above his head.
He made the toss. Dallying the rope and tensing against the anticipated jolt that would come as Barranca instinctively dropped back on his haunches to take up the slack, Johnny braced himself; the soles of his boots firmly planted in the stirrups.
And then it happened. As soon as the lasso settled around its neck, the paint gelding slid to an immediate halt; reared up on its hind legs, and executed a perfect pirouette. Neck extended, the horse charged; the slack lariat dropping to the ground as Barranca set his hind feet and then scrambled to gain purchase. The hours of patient schooling prompted the palomino to back up, to attempt to take up the slack. It was a losing battle.
Johnny reined his horse to the right; his left hand grabbing for the saddle horn. Realizing what was about to happen, he kicked free of the left hand stirrup; at the same time shifting his weight.
The pinto crashed into Barranca’s side; size, speed and gravity prevailing as the two animals collided. Johnny felt himself being propelled into the air; the world exploding into a profusion of brilliant colors: blue sky, white clouds; a glimmer of gold and a splash of white, brown and black. He compacted himself into a tight ball, tumbling through the air to land hard on his right shoulder and then somersaulting into the bright green grass. Barranca screamed.
It wasn’t over. The paint cleared Barranca’s prone body and immediately spun around; this time zeroing in on the young man who was desperately trying to get to his feet. Johnny looked up to see the gelding bearing down; the paint’s ears flat against its neck, teeth bared. With the grace of an experienced matador, the youth turned sideways and sucked in a deep breath; and was spun completely around as the massive horse’s shoulder clipped his chest.
The palomino had regained its feet; its saddle listing. Trumpeting in challenge, Barranca gave chase, herding the piebald as if pursuing a rogue steer; relentless in his pursuit. The two horses zigzagged across the open field; racing towards the line shack and the adjoining corral.
Johnny was running; his arms pumping as he made straight for the pen. He reached the gate just in time to swing it wide open; calling out to Barranca and cheering the horse on. The paint thundered into the enclosure, veering sharply to the right without breaking stride. Waving the palomino away, Johnny slammed the gate shut. He stood for a time, panting; his head resting against the top railing as he caught his breath.
Inside the corral, the paint continued its frenzied circuit; twice ramming into the slatted railings. On its third go-round, the horse slowed; its ears swiveling as it scanned the distant horizon. Then the animal picked up speed again and approached the fence.
For a long, breath-stopping moment, Johnny thought the jug head was going to try to jump. He could see the animal’s muscles bunching beneath its sweat-slicked hide; could hear the deep sucks of air as the horse made one more lap within the enclosure. Again, the animal picked up its pace and, this time, headed straight for the gate.
Johnny’s hand went immediately to his holster. He drew the Colt, cocking the hammer and firing; once, twice. The lead slugs ploughed into the ground between the gelding’s rear hooves; spewing dirt and gravel that pelted the animal’s soft underbelly like a swarm of angry bees.
It was over. Weary, the gelding attempted to rear up and then collapsed back on its haunches; winded. Front legs splayed, the animal suddenly tipped sideways. It rolled over onto its side, chest and belly heaving; and was finally still.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They had stopped in a copse of trees; all four dismounting. Murdoch passed the silver flask off to his Segundo, suppressing a smile as the man sighed after a long swig. The smile was harder to hold when Cipriano passed the container to Scott.
“Tequila,” the younger man gasped, failing to hide his surprise. His lips pursed as he blew out a small breath. “And the good stuff.” He had expected Glenlivet, Murdoch’s usual drink of choice. Smiling, he passed the container on to Paco; who looked to his father before taking a small drink.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Murdoch grinned, accepting the flask from Paco. He cleared his throat when an old memory tugged at him; not a particularly good one. His second wife had become far too fond of the agave based liquor in the months before her departure; and – in hindsight – he rebuked himself for not having handled the situation better. Pushing the dark thoughts aside, he capped the container and returned it to his inside vest pocket. “I think we should push on while we’ve still got daylight left,” he said.
Cipriano nodded. “We can make Sandia Springs before dark,” he reasoned. “Get an early start in the morning.”
Murdoch nodded his approval. He stretched, planting his fisted right hand in the small of his back to knead at the pain; and then moved to mount his horse.
Scott watched his father carefully; amazed at the man’s endurance. A piece of Pardee’s bullet still lay buried in the big man’s right hip; close to the bone, and yet he never complained. The old injury made him testy at times, but Scott and Johnny had learned to recognize the signs when their father was experiencing pain. It aged him, dramatically; making the lines in his forehead more noticeable. Like now.
“This is no time to be wool-gathering, Scott,” Murdoch scolded, impatient. He gestured toward the pack animal.
The blond’s chin dipped against his chest, his eyes hidden by the brim of his stetson. He simply nodded and pulled himself up into the saddle.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Hands on his hips, Johnny was standing above the still prone paint. He’d made short work of the task of using the leather reata to hobble the animal while it was still down; and was drenched in sweat. His faded shirt was bright red with patches of wetness across his shoulders, back and beneath his arm pits; his hair sweat-soaked and curled at his neck and ears.
Once the animal’s feet had been secured, he had used his jacket to form a make-shift blindfold. That had been the tricky part. The gelding used its head like a battering ram; and he’d had to straddle the paint’s neck before he could fully subdue it.
Hunkering down, he studied the horse; his elbows resting against his knees, his hands clasped. The battle between them had become personal; and he had no real affection for the beast. No. His regard for horses once he was grown was to view them simply as another tool of his trade; his mode of transportation to get from one job to another. Hell, until he had come to Lancer – until the old man had gifted him with Barranca – he had never felt much of anything concerning the animals he rode. He’d had his share of horses shot out from under him; had run more than one into the ground on those occasions when he had been pursued; and he hadn’t shed one tear at their passing. He simply obtained another, and moved on.
He sighed, his head lifting slightly as he gazed towards the cabin; towards the place where he had tethered the palomino. Barranca was in the shade, grazing; snatching great bites of spring-green grass from damp turf. Yeah, he mused, Barranca was different. But this one…
Levering himself up, he debated yet another time about kicking the shit out of the paint while it was still on the ground, showing the animal who was boss. It wouldn’t have been the first time. He had a short fuse when it came to horses that had bad manners; and his cure was quick and, at times, brutal. But he always got the job done. Until this time.
As much as it pissed him off to admit it; Scott had been right about the amount of time he’d spent trying to bring the animal around. Shit, his approach to bronc busting was straight forward and simple. He left it to the other hands to work with getting the horses to the point where they were green-broke enough to yield to a halter, to a man’s touch, even to a blanket. But his job – and he was good at it – was to break a horse to the saddle and the bit; to the unnatural state of having a man on its back and in control.
That was the whole point; being in control. Of bending a horse to his will.
What he had planned for the paint wasn’t going to be pretty. He began to pace, making a small, deliberate circle around the animal. Beyond the soft ching of his spurs, there was little sound, but it was enough to garner the piebald’s attention.
Nostrils flaring, the horse strained to raise its head; its ears swiveling to follow the man’s movements. Instinctively, the animal struggled against the rope securing its four feet; squealing in protest as the plaited leather cut into its tender fetlocks. Its sides began to heave; up, down, its breathing becoming more panicked.
Johnny grinned; his eyes narrowing. He’d tied the horse in such a manner that the rope – which was looped around the animal’s muzzle as well as its legs -- tightened when the animal struggled. The harder it fought; the more pain it experienced. It wouldn’t take long, he thought. One night was all he needed. And then, in the morning…
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They arrived at the campsite just as dusk approached; the air cool and a damp gray mist hovering above the small valley. Sandia Springs was part of a broad, underground river; the water bubbling to the surface where the land dipped, the earth at its edges spongy. It was especially treacherous in the spring; so much so the water source was fenced.
Murdoch stared into the haze, canting his head and frowning as he heard the all-to-familiar bleating of a calf in distress. The answering low of an adult cow sounded; both animals invisible within the shroud of fog. And then came the splash.
“Damn it!” Murdoch swore. Stiffly, his dismounted. “Scott.”
The blond followed suit, swinging down easily from his mount and handing the reins off to Cipriano. He heard the creak of leather beside him as Paco dropped to the ground; the young man untying his lariat and shaking out a loop.
“You’ll need your rope, too,” Murdoch called out to his elder son. He turned to look up at his Segundo. “Cip?”
Already, the man was shaking out his own reata; which he secured around the saddle horn. Ahead, he could hear the animals struggling in the water. There was another sound; one that caused the big Segundo’s eyes to narrow. It was the unique twang of barbed wire, following by the terrified bleats of the calf.
Murdoch called out to his son. “Tie off to your horse,” he instructed; reaching out to grab the cheek strap of Paco’s bay. He tossed his own rope to Scott. “You’ll have to go on foot.”
Scott caught the still coiled lariat, pulling up the slack and winding it elbow to palm. “We’ll need more light,” he said.
Murdoch was already digging into canvas sack hanging from the pack animal’s rigging. He withdrew the folding, box-shaped metal lamp; working the latch and extending the V-shaped hinges. It took him a little time to find the square, paper-wrapped tallow candle; the smell of sulfur coming as he struck a match with his thumbnail. He adjusted the metal reflector; a satisfied grunt coming as a ribbon of bright light cut into the darkness. “Here,” he said, handing the lamp off to his son. “It will be like quicksand, Scott,” he said softly; “the closer you get to the fence. We’ve had more rain this year…” His tone was apologetic.
“I understand, sir,” he breathed. His pale face was illuminated by the lamp; a slight smile coming as he nodded in Paco’s direction. “Shall we?” he invited.
Paco returned the older man’s smile. One thing about the Patrón’s sons; he mused. Neither of them expected another man to do a job they were unwilling to do themselves. He removed his hat, bowing slightly. “Con su permiso,” (with your permission) he teased.
Unable to help themselves, Murdoch and Cipriano chuckled. “Only the very young,” Murdoch murmured. Before it was over, he knew, Scott and Paco both were going to be in dire need of a bath.
The two young men moved into the fog; their legs seeming to disappear as their upper torsos hovered above the mist. And then they were completely engulfed. Only the splashing sound after they entered the water bore testimony to their existence.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was bedding down Barranca in the small lean-to that was attached to the leeward side of the line shack. He was taking his time, working things over in his mind, taking solace in the simple chore. Who’d believe it, he thought. Johnny Madrid scraping day-old sweat off a horse’s ass end. Made about as much sense as takin’ a regular tub bath. He laughed. He did that now, too; mainly because Mamácita refused to feed him if he didn’t.
He stood for a time, carding his fingers through the palomino’s forelock, crooking his finger to scratch the animal’s left ear. For the second time he checked to make sure the horse had not been injured after the collision with the paint; relieved there was no damage besides some minor scrapes. He smiled when Barranca leaned into his touch, the horse responding to his gentle stroking like a cat tolerating a similar gesture. And then, having enough of the human contact, the animal shook its head; stretching its neck, its lips fluttering.
Johnny looked down at his shirt. It was now spattered with great splotches of horse spit. He grimaced, using both hands to wipe off the wet. “Thanks,” he muttered. The brown eyes just stared at him, no apology showing. If anything, the horse almost seemed smug.
Pushing the thought aside, Johnny walked around the horse, giving the animal’s rear end a final smack and then headed toward the front door of the cabin.
He had already started the coffee. The aroma of the chicory, coffee bean blend permeated the cabin as he stepped across the threshold. He’d purposely made the brew stronger than usual, needing the jolt to keep him awake until he at least finished his supper.
The fatigue he was feeling was justifiable. He’d left the hacienda before the sun was up; well before Maria had started the morning meal. The rich cream he had chugged straight from the small pitcher he’d found in the tin-lined icebox did little to wake him up; and the only food he had found was the remainder of the apple pie. That had sustained him through the long day; but he was really hungry now. And he hurt. Absently, he reached up to rub his sore right shoulder. The fuckin’ paint had dumped him hard the first time; and the second tumble after the animal had taken Barranca down hadn’t helped. He moved closer to the small pot-bellied stove in the corner; using the flickering light from the eisenglas windows in the curved door to survey the damage.
There was a scorch mark on his calzoneras, well above his knee; from where the plaited reata had been dragged across his thigh when the paint had bolted, the friction burn enough that the rope had actually penetrated the leather. He could see a bright pink welt, and he touched it only to feel the ooze of clear liquid; like a blister that had been popped. Gingerly, he explored further; hissing a bit when he discovered a small tear at his right knee. He tapped the place carefully with his extended fore and middle finger, and felt the knot. Straightening, he winced. His back hurt like hell, too. Had worse, he thought. Cautiously, he rolled his shoulders.
He was limping when he went back to the cupboard in search of the frying pan. The cabin had been restocked during the renovation, and in addition to the seasoned cast iron cooking pots; there was a good supply of tinned food. He frowned. Beans, of course, and some tins of something Scott called potted meat. Continuing the inventory, he found canned milk and a large canister containing flour. The real prize was a thickly wrapped chunk of smoked side meat; and behind that a large glass jar filled molasses.
Whistling, he began assembling his supper. He used the knife Scott had recently given him; a multipurpose utensil his brother had carried through the War. It was bulky; heavy. But it contained a knife, fork and spoon that opened just like a regular jackknife. It included a can opener, too.
He peeled a bit of the green mold from the fatty part of the side meat, tossing it into the fire; and then began slicing the meat. The cast iron pot – more of a dutch oven than a frying pan -- was deep, and had a good fitting lid, and once the meat had browned, he added the beans. He seasoned them with a generous portion of the molasses, using a wooden spoon to stir the mixture; placing the pan on top of the stove and covering it.
And then he began making the biscuits. Maria and Teresa, he knew, prepared the flour that was left in the various cabins around the estancia. He didn’t know what they seasoned the mix with, and wet his finger to take a taste. Salt, he recognized, a bit of cornmeal and what he figured was baking powder. He dumped a portion of the flour mix into bowl he had found, added some canned milk, and stirred. His first attempt looked like pancake batter, and he was tempted to whip up a batch; but then reconsidered. Reaching into the canister, he added more flour; this time kneading the dough with his fingers instead of stirring. When he thought the batter looked somewhat like the biscuit dough Maria turned out, he considered the job done. Licking the excess from his fingers, he turned back to the stove.
He checked the pot that was simmering atop the stove, grinning when he realized it actually smelt pretty damned good. Then, remembering a trick Boston had taught him, he reached for the stove’s door. He hissed when he realized the coiled metal handle was hot, and he went in search of a towel to protect his fingers.
Returning to the stove, he used a wooden spoon to drop bits of the biscuit dough atop the side meat and beans, and then, using the folded up towel for a hot pad, placed the uncovered pot inside the stove on the iron grate above the flames.
He was feeling pretty cocky right about now. The combined aroma of the coffee, the meat and biscuits reminded him of Maria’s kitchen. His stomach was already growling in anticipation. Then, recalling Scott’s detailed cooking lesson, he dug into the front of his pants and took out the nickel-plated watch he’d won during an all night poker session at the Red Dog. Ten minutes, Scott had told him. Not one second more. He checked the clock and reckoned he had about eight minutes.
The cockiness increased when the minutes finally ticked by and he pulled the pan from the stove’s interior. The biscuits were a perfect golden brown.
He carried the skillet to the table, changing his mind about fetching a proper tin plate. Sitting down, he began digging in. Jesus, it was good. He ate until he was uncomfortably full; limped over to the bunk on the far wall, laid down on his stomach, and promptly fell asleep.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch and Cipriano had risen before the two younger men. Moving quietly, they set about preparing breakfast, their whispered conversation liberally interspersed with soft laughter. The light banter took on a more serious tone as the two men complimented each other on the fine work their sons had done the previous night. “Not one complaint,” Murdoch murmured, his gaze drifting to where his elder son was still sleeping.
Cip smiled. “They worked well together,” he whispered, the pride evident. Paco was the youngest of his two sons, and – like Juanito – sometimes full of himself and impetuous. However, his time with Scott the previous night had been well spent, and the boy had worked diligently. The Segundo stared into his coffee mug. “Scott works well with all the men, Patrón.”
Murdoch grinned. Cipriano wasn’t one to hand out compliments; and he appreciated the man’s words. “He’s come a long way from the Boston dandy,” he breathed.
There was the soft sound of laughter. “Y de los pantalones jugados, (And from the plaid pants),” Cip responded, remembering Johnny’s constant teasing of his brother.
They sat for a time in companionable silence, Murdoch reaching out with a length of kindling to stir the fire. Their breakfast menu had radically changed from what would usually be cooked on the trail: veal replacing the side meat they had planned on cooking. He poked at the fire a bit harder than he intended, wincing when the stick connected with the metal grate, disturbing the coffee pot and causing the lid to rattle.
It was just enough noise – enough of a sound out of the ordinary early morning quiet – to shock Scott from a sound sleep. Bleary-eyed, he rose up on his elbows, quickly taking in his surroundings before assuming a more relaxed position. He dragged his hand across his face; finger combing his hair.
Having stripped completely after his sojourn in the mud, Scott had gone to bed in his long johns. His pants and shirt – he and Paco had both removed their boots before entering the springs – had been coated in the sludge, and put to boil in the camp cook pot. He grinned up at his father, gesturing towards the clothes that were hanging from a makeshift clothes line that was stretched above the fire. “Please tell me they’re dry,” he murmured. His voice was hoarse; gravelly.
Murdoch rose up from his place beside the circle of stones; fingering the shirt. “Dry and very warm,” he said. He retrieved the shirt and pants, and carried them over to where his son was lying. “Are you all right?”
Scott took the shirt, shrugging into its smoky warmth before answering. “I’m fine,” he said. He hoped some coffee would soothe his throat.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “I believe I’ve heard your brother voice those same words, son; and not under the best of circumstances.” Reaching out, he pressed his palm against the younger man’s forehead.
Scott knew better than to pull away. “I am fine,” he insisted. “I’ll be even better after I’ve put on my trousers, Murdoch; and I’ve had some coffee.” He eased away from his father’s hand. “I don’t suppose you’ve got another flask, sir? One with…”
“…a measure of Glenlivet for your coffee?” Murdoch finished. He was rubbing his hands together, as if relishing the warmth of their brief contact.
Scott had risen and was stepping into his pants. Like the shirt, the fabric was still warm from the fire. “A cup of Irish coffee would go down quite well this morning,” he smiled.
Murdoch snorted. “Scottish coffee,” he corrected, “with a proper measure of Scottish whisky.” He turned and headed back for the fire.
Shaking his head, Scott followed after his father; pausing just long enough to nudge Paco’s leg with his stockinged toe.
As Scott pulled on his boots, he watched as Cipriano began preparing the veal steaks. The Segundo had a real talent for cooking meat over an open flame. Venison, javelina; rabbit. Cipriano Delgado had the open admiration of every man, woman and child on the estancia; and was the cook of choice when Lancer hosted their twice yearly barbeques. It was, Cipriano claimed, the secret spices he rubbed into the meat. He had yet to reveal that secret.
They ate their breakfast as the sun came up, a fire-red ball on the Eastern horizon that painted the clouds scarlet. “Rain,” Murdoch muttered as he threw the dregs from his coffee into the dying fire. The brew had been laced with a generous splash of scotch; the residual alcohol causing a brief flash of blue flame.
Together, the four men cleaned up the campsite; stowing the gear on the packhorse. In the background was the haunted bellowing of the lone cow. The grieving bovine, its teats full and sore stood sniffing at the freshly turned earth where Murdoch and Cipriano had buried the remains of its drowned calf; the animal swaying slightly as it continued to moan. Bearing its own wounds from the struggle with the ‘devil wire’, the cow seemed almost human in its bereavement.
“How long will she stay?” Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t answer that, son,” he replied. He stood, watching the animal, threading the leather reins from his mount’s bridle through his fingers. “I’ve been on this land for more than twenty years and have seen things I’ll never fully comprehend.” He turned, facing his son. “Cattle are herd animals and instinct draws them together; and yet…” His voice drifted momentarily. “I can’t even explain why she wandered off from the main bunch to birth her calf.” His expression softened. “We aren’t abandoning her, Scott.” The smile came then. “I don’t think even Darwin could explain this.”
Scott chuckled. Some of the more spirited discussions he’d had with his father had been inspired by the naturalist’s work, Origin of Species. “I don’t think Darwin could explain us,” he observed sagely.
“Mount up,” Murdoch ordered gruffly; failing completely to hide the smile. “With any luck, we’ll find your brother before the weather turns.” He nodded towards the springs; toward the sagging wire that had been only marginally repaired. “We’ll let Johnny ponder your questions while he’s expanding the fence line.”
His father’s determined declaration caused Scott to think about his brother’s reaction to the news when it was delivered. There were few things Johnny hated more than stringing wire; and this job, he knew, was going to be long and arduous. Sighing, he pulled himself up into the saddle and followed behind as the big man moved out.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny swatted at the warmth on his face; screwing his eyes shut as the rising sun filtered through the cabin’s single window. The uneven, leaded glass acted like a prism; scattering the sun’s rays and kaleidescoping them in a profusion of rainbow colors across the plank floor. Even with his eyes shut, the light was bright; and he turned his face to the wall.
It didn’t take long for the back of his head to become annoyingly hot; his dark hair intensifying the heat. “Shit!” he muttered; giving up and rolling himself into a sitting position.
He’d never been a morning person. As Johnny Madrid, he had lived the majority of his life in the twilight world of near darkness and even darker dealings. Men with a need for his gun rarely sought him out in the bright light of day; preferring to meet with him in the gloomy corners of the local cantinas or the back rooms of their private offices. Or, if he was lucky, in the upstairs cribs of the local burdel (bordello).
A crazy remembrance suddenly struck him; and he laughed. It was the cover of a Beadles Dime Novel Scott had read to him when he was recovering from Pardee’s bullet: Johnny Madrid, Border Bandito. He snickered, recalling the garish illustration: ‘his’ body half-in, half-out a bordello window, the woman clutching his waist. Scott had taken a genuine delight in reading the book to him; playing the different characters’ parts with more flare than a five dollar whore vying for the attention a flush high-roller.
Murdoch had come into the room just as his elder brother was reading a lengthy quote from the fiction; the completely made-up conversation of a soiled dove begging the young bandito to save her from the clutches of greedy cattle baron. Scott’s back had been to the door, and his high-pitched parody of the woman’s exaggerated Mexican accent had been dead on.
Surprisingly, Murdoch had said nothing. He had stood behind his eldest, his face warring between amusement and astonishment. Scott had damned near jumped out of his skin when the Old Man tapped him on the shoulder.
Murdoch had simply reached out and retrieved the book before skewering both his sons with the look. And then he had shifted his gaze to his younger son. “You haven’t enough years on you, boy, to have done one-tenth of what’s been written in these fictions.” His eyes then swung to his eldest. “And you could do better by your brother than to read him so-called adventure stories not even fit for a ten-year old school boy.” He took a breath. “You should also know the Pinkertons found three,” he had gestured with the appropriate number of digits, “Johnny Madrids in Mexico, and not one of them was your brother.” Then he left the room, leaving his sons to ponder what had just happened.
Johnny thought on that for a time; realizing something that had not occurred to him before. Murdoch never brought up Madrid. The Old Man certainly didn’t avoid the subject when it came up; but he never made it an issue. No. That had been his own trump card; using Madrid as a weapon to stall the questions about the years after his mother had deserted him, and he had been on his own.
Dismissing the thoughts as easily as they had come, Johnny scratched his belly, his gaze drifting to the table as he considered grabbing a left-over biscuit. He changed his mind as a pair of blue-tailed horseflies landed on the perfectly browned bits of bread and began copulating.
Using both hands, he levered himself up from the bunk. The juices were beginning to flow; the knowledge of what was waiting for him beyond the door filling him with the edgy excitement that always came when he was focused on some challenge; some testing of his skills. It struck him as funny now; how his little contest with Paco over the breaking of the paint had been more satisfying then the sly game he had played with Pardee.
And then he frowned. He’d never doubted he could beat Pardee. Hell, the high rider was more bushwhacker than pistolero. It was different with Paco. His primo (cousin) was genuine competition, someone who enjoyed the game they played; who welcomed the challenge and was more than willing to engage in their secret war.
Well, it had been secret; at least until Scott had opened his big mouth.
Exhaling, he puffed out a short breath. Big brother and Paco had a big surprise coming. It was going to be one hell of a treat to see the looks on their faces when he rode under the arch atop the paint.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stood briefly in the stirrups; stretching to his full height as he worked out the cramp in his lower right leg. Keeping the others in sight, he had ridden slightly ahead; hoping for some sign Johnny had finally abandoned his difficult trek through the scrub where they had managed to track him for a time; and had returned to the known trail. He shook his head, softly congratulating his younger sibling when he found nothing. “Never one to do things the easy way, are you, little brother?”
He settled back into the saddle, reining Cheval to the right as he turned around and cantered back to where his father was resting. “Nothing,” he said, pulling the gelding to a stop.
Murdoch nodded. He sat, hands folded across the pommel, the tight set of his lips a grim testimony to the pain he was experiencing. The humidity wasn’t helping. Beyond them, high in the mountains, it had already begun to rain; distant rumblings of spring thunder rolling across the valley. “Well, at least we know this is direction he was heading.” He shifted in the saddle in an attempt to make himself more comfortable, grimacing when the effort failed. “We’ve got another ten miles,” he observed.
Scott’s eyes flicked to Cipriano, who gestured with a single nod in a westerly direction. He knew from the Segundo’s somber expression Murdoch was nearing the zenith of his normally high level of endurance. He also knew it would be useless to suggest they took more time to rest. Still, he felt a need to try. “Since we know Johnny is at the cabin, sir,” he began, “there’s no reason we can’t rest a bit longer.”
Murdoch’s response was terse; straight to the point. “I intend to be at the cabin before it begins to rain,” he snapped. “And I fully intend to deal with your brother as soon as I get there.” With that, he touched his heels to his horse’s ribs and moved out.
Sighing, Scott turned and nudged his horse forward; Cipriano and Paco falling in behind. With any luck, he hoped, by the time they arrived at the cabin, Johnny would be lying in a heap in the middle of the corral. No serious injuries, of course, and certainly nothing fatal. No. He’d be perfectly content if Johnny was simply unconscious.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The paint was tied off close to the snubbing post in the center of the small corral. Its right hind leg was fully off the ground; held in place by the rawhide reata which was threaded through the cheek strap of the make-shift halter. The lariat was drawn tight, a froth of blood showing at the animal’s fetlock; bright red droplets already darkening in the sand. Johnny’s gloved hand was on the rope; and he continued pulling until the horse’s leg was tucked firmly up tight against its belly.
He secured the rope to the post; using one hand to control the slack. In his other hand he carried Barranca’s saddle, the blanket draped over the seat. With quick efficiency, he blanketed and saddled the gelding; nothing gentle in his movements as he began to secure the straps. The paint had sucked in a bellyful of air; and Johnny quickly kneed the animal in the gut, pulling the cinch tight as the horse blew out.
Using both hands now, he checked the rigging. He swore as the horse attempted to skitter away from his touch, stepping back as the gelding’s left hind leg gave out and the animal landed hard on its butt. The scrabbling began then as the paint attempted to regain its feet; the blindfold still in place, the arms of Johnny’s jacket flapping wildly as the animal swung its head. A loud thunk sounded as the gelding’s cheek collided with the snubbing post, the self-inflicted pain causing the horse to suddenly stand stock still.
Head high, its nostrils flaring; the walleye was on full alert and seemed to be considering its options. Johnny watched the horse carefully, the right-hand corner of his mouth turning up in a cold smile. He could see the gelding was thinking, plotting; its right rear leg tensing, the muscles in the horse’s hind quarter quivering. A full day and night without water, of being on its side on the ground, had weakened the horse; but had done nothing to quell its feral instinct to fight.
This time when the horse moved its head, the move was calculated; tentative. Cautiously, it sniffed; its upper lip fluttering as the animal carefully swung its head. The contact with the post was minor, the gelding’s next move more deliberate; cagey. It began to rub against the pole in an attempt to dislodge the blindfold.
Gathering the reins in his left hand, and without using the stirrups, Johnny swung up on to the animal’s back. In his right hand, he held the leather reata that secured the paint’s hind leg. He had secured the rope to the snubbing post with a slip knot; keeping a tight hold as he settled the toes of his boots into the stirrups, gripping with his legs as he felt the gelding tense.
He jerked the slip knot loose just as the paint succeeded in dislodging the blindfold; and all hell broke loose. As soon as the gelding’s right hind leg hit the ground, the animal began to buck. Jack-knifing, the walleye crow-hopped in a tight circle, all four feet off the ground as it danced across the packed caliche; its nose tucked between its front legs.
Johnny used his spurs; raking the paint’s sides from its shoulders to its flanks as it continued to buck. He gave the animal no slack; his shoulders burning as the horse fought the rawhide bridle. Grasping the reins with both hands, he fought to keep the horse under control; merciless in his use of the spurs as he continued his attempt to gain control. “Run, you son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted; each word coming in tempo to the continued bucking. He could feel his tail-bone compacting against the saddle every time the horse slammed back to earth; the sudden jolt causing him to bite his tongue. The rusty, salty taste of blood only served to add more fire to his already flaring temper. Vindictively, he used the spurs again.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They topped the ridge overlooking the cabin just in time to see the paint bolt. Johnny was astride the horse, hunched forward slightly in the saddle; and he was using his spurs. The piebald was circling the corral at breakneck speed; its neck fully extended. Without breaking stride, the gelding bucked; it’s back arching as all four feet lifted in the air before crashing back to the ground. The horse resumed running, edging closer to the fence as it circled the enclosure.
Scott kicked Cheval into a run, heading down the side of the steep hill at a slight angle. His hat whipped from his head as he picked up speed, his sun-bleached hair brilliant against the sky.
Murdoch inhaled sharply; the tightness in his chest robbing him of his breath as he watched his elder son. Scott’s horse was barreling down the steep incline at a chilling rate of speed; fearlessly urged on by its whip-cord lean rider.
Inside the corral, the piebald was running full out, its unshod hooves cutting deep into the barren dirt. Suddenly, it wheeled, tilting precariously as it made the corner turn. And then, with deadly purpose, the horse careened sidewise into the fence.
Too late, Johnny kicked free of the left stirrup; his leg temporarily pinned between the fence and the saddle’s fender as the horse raked against the railings. He dug in with the right spur; fisting his left hand as he struck out at the paint’s head. It was enough to throw the gelding off-stride and away from the fence.
The animal’s recovery was quick and deadly. Aware of the sudden shift in weight; the horse skidded to a halt. Head down, it kicked out with its hind feet; its rump high in the air. Instinctively, Johnny prepared for the tumble; compacting himself into a near-fetal position. He hit the ground hard, somersaulting against the packed caliche before belly-flopping into the dirt, his arms akimbo.
“Stay down!” Scott’s voice rose above the harsh drumming of unshod hooves. Yanking his rifle from the boot, he dismounted on the run. He levered a shell into the chamber and raced towards the corral.
Johnny covered his head with his arms. He knew without looking what was happening, could feel the earth shaking as the paint reversed direction; suddenly aware of the heat as the gelding’s teeth skimmed across his thigh and then raked along his back before tearing at his shoulder. He heard the dull thunk as the gelding’s front hoof clipped his upper right arm, the pain so intense he began to heave. A great wave of nausea swept him as he gagged on his own vomit.
Scott fired the rifle into the air; quickly levering a second cartridge into the spring-fed chamber. The horse immediately turned.
The next shot was dead center; between the paint’s eyes. A bright blossom of dark red spread its petals against the animal’s pale forehead; a single, finger-sized hole marking the spot. The horse blew out its final breath and collapsed; its front legs folding at the knees as the animal dropped to the ground and rolled over on its side. A thick cloud of yellow dust and pea-sized gravel shrouded the horse, whispering skyward with the breeze; as if the animal’s soul had been released. And then the paint’s entire body went rigid, its legs extending fully in a series of spasms followed by an agonizing shudder. And then it was still.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Hovering in and out of that deceptively calm place that was somewhere between Heaven and Hell, Johnny was aware of hands; too many hands. And then he felt himself being lifted up from the ground. He could smell blood, and wondered if it was his own. The darkness took him then, and he allowed himself to be swallowed up by the pain.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott carried Johnny into the cabin. Gently, he laid his brother down; and immediately began stripping his clothing. Murdoch had already stoked up a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and had set a kettle of water on to boil. Cipriano was retrieving the medical supplies from the pack animal; and Paco had been dispatched to take care of the horses. They worked together like a well-oiled team; each man anticipating the needs of the other and very few words were exchanged.
Johnny had been undressed down to his cut-off underwear. Murdoch had scooped out enough tepid water from the pot to clean away most of the dirt. The boy was still out. “His knee is dislocated,” Murdoch breathed, pointing at the obvious trauma, already beginning to discolor; “and the shoulder.” His hand trembled as he touched the already scabbed welt on his son’s forehead; frowning as he realized the injury was not as recent as the others, a good indication the boy’s battle with the gelding had begun prior to the all-out war they had observed in the corral.
Scott was applying a compress to his brother’s swollen knee. Johnny’s left kneecap was off kilter and to one side; lower than normal. It was an injury he was far too familiar with; having seen more than his share of riding accidents among the recruits he had dealt with right after his enlistment. “He’s lucky that leg isn’t broken,” he breathed. “As for his shoulder…” his right eyebrow arched. “He’s dislocated it before, Murdoch.” The next came hesitantly. “I’ve seen him pop it back into place on his own, sir; and on more than one occasion.”
Murdoch’s jaws tightened. “I am more cognizant of your brother’s mischief than you think, Scott; just as I am aware of the fact the two of you have had more than your share of misadventures since you’ve come home.” He raised his hand to stop the younger man’s anticipated protests. “I’d be a fool to not comprehend there would be a little hell-raising; you’re both young and, I think, making up for what might have been. But this…”
Scott was momentarily dumbstruck. He’d never taken his father for a fool; but he was still surprised to hear the man’s words. But he had to admit; he and his brother did manage to keep each other entertained. He sobered. “… this was avoidable,” he finished. He removed the compress and dipped it into the bowl of water; wringing it out before returning it to its original position.
Both men turned to face the door, their conversation interrupted, watching as Cipriano stepped into the room. The Segundo’s eyes went directly to the still form on the bunk; and then to Murdoch. “I’ve sent Paco to fetch Dr. Jenkins, Patrón. I told him to take Barranca; and to bring the doctor directly back to the hacienda.”
Murdoch nodded. “It’s best he take a fresh horse,” he concurred. “And there’s no point in Sam coming up here.” He was quiet a moment. “Once the horses are rested, Scott, I’ll need you to go back to the ranch. We’ll need the buckboard.”
Scott drew in a deep breath. It was clear he was pondering something beyond retrieving the wagon.
“You’re thinking of what happened out there,” Murdoch said; “with the piebald.” Reaching out, he laid his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I would have made the same decision, Scott; and I intend to tell Johnny I agree with what you’ve done. After what I saw; what was apparent in the way that animal behaved when your brother was on the ground…” He paused, remembering the feeling of absolute terror that had gripped him when the gelding turned on his son; its intention clear. He shook his head. “You had no choice.” Gently, he applied just a bit of pressure as he squeezed the younger man’s upper arm in reassurance.
Cipriano cleared his throat, the words coming softly. “You think your brother is going to be angry with you,” he surmised. He turned his gaze to his old friend. “Does the boy even know what happened, Patrón?” he asked; “does he need to know?”
Scott considered the Segundo’s words, and was the first to respond. “I appreciate what you’re suggesting, Cip;” he turned back to his father, “just as I appreciate, sir, knowing you will tell Johnny you would have made the same determination. But it was my decision, and I’ll deal with it.” He turned slightly so that he was facing both men, his voice lowering. “I regret the horse had to die; but I don’t regret killing it. In good conscience, we couldn’t have taken it to auction, knowing what we now know. And if we kept here or turned it loose, Johnny would have gotten it in his head to catch it, and to try to ride it again.” He hesitated, debating his next words. “If for no other reason than to continue his little contest with Paco.
“No horse, no contest.” He smiled at both men. “No Johnny laying broken in the dirt.” Already he was putting on his gloves. “I think Cheval is rested enough, sir. The route back to Lancer will be more direct than the way we came.”
Murdoch turned his gaze to Cipriano. “I want you to go with him, Cip. The sun will be setting soon, and that storm may hit yet.” He turned back to where his son was laying on the lower bunk. “I can take care of Johnny.”
Scott’s chin dipped against his chest, and he was smiling. He glanced up. “I’d welcome the company, Tío,” he murmured. The rules again, he thought. No solitary riders on solitary missions.
Cip laughed. “You do not want to face the women alone,” he accused, teasing. “Maria or Terésa!”
“Then it’s settled,” Murdoch said. “The two of you can face the ladies together.” He reached out, patting Scott’s shoulder. “And you can tell Teresa you’ve kept your promise, Scott; that you will be bringing him home alive.” The pat turned into an affectionate squeeze as he saw the younger man’s cheeks color. He waved them towards the door; calling out before they crossed the threshold. “Send Walt and Martín back here to the cabin as soon as you get to the estancia. I’ll need them to deal with the paint’s carcass.”
Scott was brushing dirt from his stetson. “I’ll come back with the wagon,” he promised. Without waiting for his father’s objections, he quickly opened the door and stepped across the threshold.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Paco Delgado galloped up to Sam Jenkins’s home; dismounting in a whirlwind of dust before the horse came to a complete stop. Ground-hitching the animal, he dropped lightly to the street. Vaulting the narrow gate leading to the cobblestone walkway, he hurried to the front entrance and knocked; just once before opening the door and stepping across the threshold and into the home’s small foyer.
Sam Jenkins was just coming out of his office; his hands wet and wrapped around a length of toweling. His glasses were perched on his forehead, and he lifted a hand to finger them back in place across the bridge of his nose. “Paco?” he greeted.
The young man immediately took off his hat. “Johnny,” he said simply; just the one word.
The doctor just shook his head. “What’s that boy gotten himself into now?” he grumbled. In the few short months since Murdoch Lancer’s sons had been home, both young men had had their share of bumps and bruises, but Johnny was in a class by himself: the boy was a walking magnet for trouble.
Paco’s expression was somber. “He was thrown by a horse, sir.” His voice lowered; and he was working his hat in a slow circle beneath his bent fingers. “Johnny was unconscious when Scott carried him into the cabin.”
Another exasperated sigh from the doctor. “He wasn’t at Lancer?” he asked. He crooked a finger at the young Mexican, gesturing for him to follow, and then headed for the kitchen; calling out as he approached the doorway. “Mrs. Armstrong. Do we have a cup of coffee for this,” he turned slightly, again beckoning the hesitant Paco forward, “young man?”
Beth Armstrong, Jenkins’s part-time housekeeper and nurse, was at the sink, her arms elbow deep in dish water. A pleasant faced widow of advanced middle age, there was genuine affection in her smile. “Of course, Doctor,” she replied; taking the man’s towel to dry her hands. She immediately went to the stove to fetch the pot. “Johnny?” she asked knowingly.
Sam chuckled at woman’s foresight. “Who else?” he mused.
Paco Delgado was getting restless, and shifted from one foot to the other. “I should be tending to your buggy, sir,” he suggested. Still, he accepted the cup from the woman.
The physician snorted. “I need to gather my things, boy,” he responded. “Drink your coffee.” He turned his attention to the woman. “Beth…” His brow furrowed as he realized he had used the woman’s first name; something of a slip when other people were present. “Johnny wasn’t injured at the ranch,” he continued. He cast another glance at in Paco’s direction. “Where’s this cabin you’re talking about, Paco?”
“West of the main house,” the young man answered. “But my father said I should take you to the hacienda.”
Sam turned back to the woman. “I’d appreciate it if you could stay here, Mrs. Armstrong.” A shy smile touched his lips as he mouthed the words; his respect for the woman prompting the formality. “If anything occurs where you need me…” The words faded.
“I’ll send the Todd boy to fetch you,” the woman interrupted.
Paco Delgado watched the exchange between the physician and the woman; a smile creasing the skin at the corners of his eyes. It was, he thought, like watching his parents; the same affection he always observed between his father and his mother. “Your buggy, sir,” he said softly; offering his empty cup to the woman.
Sam turned to the youth. “Yes,” he said; flushing a bit beneath the younger man’s wise scrutiny. “My buggy.”
The woman was still smiling when she took Paco’s cup; and she gave the young man’s arm an affectionate pat. She knew the Delgado family well; and had always been impressed by their obvious devotion to each other.
Paco surrendered the cup with a smile. “Gracias, Señora.” Then, bowing respectfully, he headed out the back door towards Sam’s small barn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He could hear water; like sun-thawed snow melting and bubbling across a winter-dry stream bed, the trickle becoming a steady stream. He could feel it too, dribbling against his lips. Incredibly thirsty, he tried to raise his head; seeking out the source and drinking greedily. Too soon, the cup was taken from his lips. “More,” he demanded.
“Not yet,” the voice responded. Murdoch’s hand was cupped around the nape of his son’s neck. Gently, he lowered the boy’s head against the pillow.
“Thirsty,” Johnny muttered. He tried raising his fingers to his lips; sucking in a deep breath when his right shoulder refused to co-operate.
“Your shoulder is dislocated,” Murdoch said; his palm flat against the boy’s chest. “And your knee.”
Johnny was shaking. His shoulder and his knee felt like they were on fire, but the rest of his body seemed to be freezing. “Cold,” he murmured.
Murdoch reached to the bottom of the bed and shook out the second blanket that had been folded across Johnny’s ankles and pulled it up to cover the boy’s chest. His usually verbose son, it seemed, had regressed to his toddler stage: communicating in single words. “You have a slight fever, son,” he said.
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered and he was trying to focus. “Sick?” he asked finally; still disoriented.
The words stupid and stubborn tripped across the older man’s tongue but he refrained from saying them. “You were thrown by a horse,” he replied. “The paint.”
Oh, shit! The final two words his father had just said brought him quickly to the here and now. He turned his head slightly, eyes narrowing as he explored the room. “Scott?” he queried; hoping to God his brother was somewhere close and he wasn’t alone with their father.
Murdoch was wringing out the cloth he had been using to mop Johnny’s face. “He went back to the hacienda to fetch the wagon. And I’ve sent Paco for Sam.”
Johnny’s eyes closed. Fuck. Shit, fuck! He debated pretending to pass out, to sleep; but he knew it would be a wasted effort. The Old Man had gotten wise to that ploy; probably a lot sooner than he’d ever let on. There was only one option left. “Hurt,” he murmured. “Bad.” He took absolutely no comfort in the fact he wasn’t lying.
There was a subtle pop as Murdoch worked the cork free on the bottle of laudanum. He diluted the drug in the tin cup he’d used to give Johnny water. Lifting the boy’s head, he urged him to drink. He had no doubt his son was asking for the drug to avoid any prolonged conversation; but he also knew the boy’s injuries required that he be still.
It didn’t take long for the drug to take affect. Johnny was soon asleep, the soft even sound of his breathing filling the room.
Murdoch stretched out his legs; trying to find a comfortable position in the straight-backed wooden chair. He was just dozing off when Johnny – who habitually slept on his stomach – attempted to roll over. The boy whimpered and cried out; a single word, Soledad, before settling back against the mattress and nestling deep into the pillows.
The rancher sighed. He was certain he’d heard the word right; puzzled and strangely hopeful. Soledad was the name of the wolf-hybrid pup Modoc Charlie had given to him only months before Johnny was born: a large, affectionate animal that had doted on his son and had been his constant companion. The dog had been slaughtered the night Johnny and his mother disappeared.
On the cot, Johnny drifted deeper into that nether world where dreams and reality mingled with memories long buried. He was aware of the warmth of the sun against his face and the muted, steady thump of shod hooves against thick turf; and he was once more a child. He was with Val again; in San Luís, astride the little black mare, Soledad, and he was free and he was safe.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stood on the front porch of the hacienda, a mug of coffee in his hand. The wind had shifted and was now blowing out of the east; driving the storm clouds that had piled on the western horizon toward the Pacific Ocean. Thankfully, there had been little rain; just a light sprinkling that had pitted the patches of sand and gravel in the courtyard and the corrals.
He stretched; tossing the dregs from his coffee into Maria’s flower pot. Around him, Lancer was coming alive; the first rays of a morning sun creeping across the eastern hills. “Mateo!” he greeted, watching as the man and his companion trotted into the courtyard. In the corral, Walt and Martín were saddling up.
Mateo swung down from his dun gelding; handing the reins off to Frank before climbing the single step to the patio. “You’ve found your hermano,” he smiled. He grasped Scott’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Yes,” Scott answered. He looked back to where Frank was still mounted, calling out to the man, and gesturing towards the front door. “Maria has started breakfast and there’s coffee, Frank,” he invited. “Come join us.”
Frank smiled; but shook his head. He nodded towards the cook shack; at the gray spiral of smoke that had just begun its climb towards the sky. “I smell a stack of flapjacks with my name on ‘em, boss,” he grinned. “But thank you all the same.” Leading Mateo’s horse, he headed towards the corral.
Scott was still smiling when he turned back to his companion. “Flapjacks or Maria’s biscuits, compadre?” he asked.
Mateo pretended to be considering the invitation. The metallic rattle of trace chains provided him with enough of a distraction to make the stall seem legitimate. Half-turning, he watched as two vaqueros lead the harnessed wagon team from the barn. “Is the boy hurt?” he queried, his expression serious.
Scott nodded his head. “His left knee is dislocated; and his right shoulder. Murdoch spent the night with him in the cabin; the one west of Sandia Springs.” He opened the front door, following Mateo across the threshold. “I shot the paint.”
Mateo nodded in greeting to Teresa as she came down the stairs. “Good,” he grunted. “And now, amigo?”
The two men trailed behind Teresa as they entered the kitchen. “Your father and I rode back together,” Scott said. “Paco’s been sent for Sam; and I’ll be going back up to the cabin with the wagon.”
Maria had filled two plates and she gestured for the men to sit down. Her gaze lingered on Scott’s face, on the dark circles that were forming beneath his eyes, and she shook her head. The young man had refused to rest; had simply sponged off and changed his shirt and asked for coffee. “Muchacho obstinado. ¡Usted es tan malo como su hermano!” (Stubborn boy. You are as bad as your brother!)
Scott smiled across the brim of his cup at Mateo, who was now seated across from him; next to Teresa. “She’s not happy with me,” he murmured.
“She is like my mother,” Mateo whispered; blowing into his cup. “She worries too much.” His reward for his observations was a sudden smack on the back of his head. Maria’s hearing, it was apparent, was much better than he had anticipated.
Teresa stifled a giggle with her napkin. “Serves you right, Mateo,” she chided. Her gaze turned to her elder brother. “And you aren’t off the hook yet, either; Scott Lancer.” The next words came softly; filled with concern. “You need to rest.”
The blond was already on his feet; stuffing the last of a biscuit in his mouth. He swallowed before speaking. “I’ll rest once Johnny is home and Sam has taken care of him.” Reaching across the table, he tapped the girl’s nose with his bent forefinger. “Murdoch is going to be a bear when he gets back, Teresa. Two days in the saddle and a full night watching over Johnny. He’ll need the rest much more than I do.”
She sighed; and then her chin lifted, her eyes bright with annoyance. “You three,” she muttered. “You are all so damned stubborn. Johnny and his horses, Murdoch and his having to call the tune. And you not even having the good sense to rest.”
Scott tapped her nose again. “And that, little girl, is the pot calling the kettle black,” he scolded. “Maria told me you didn’t sleep at all last night.” Leaning across the table, he kissed her forehead. “I am bringing him back alive,” he teased, smiling.
Pretending to frown, Teresa swatted at her brother’s cheek. Mateo was standing at Scott’s shoulder; and he was also smiling. “Men!” she huffed. She dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was on his third cup of coffee. He had slept very little during the long night. His right hip was throbbing; in time, it seemed to the pulsing of his heart, and his back… His back felt as if someone was pounding his spine with a ball-peen hammer along its entire length; the pain radiating to the base of his skull.
Sighing, he shook his head. His gaze settled on his son, a wry smile coming. Johnny, like most of the young men at the estancia, never gave much thought to their rough-and-tumble existence. They all went at everything full bore, as if they had been born indestructible; with no thought to the way they punished their bodies. Age would tame them, he thought ruefully; just as it has tamed me.
Aware of a subtle movement on the cot; the man was roused from his silent musings. Pausing to add hot coffee and a splash of tinned milk to the tepid brew in his mug, he went to the bunk; easing himself down on the mattress. He slipped his left arm beneath Johnny’s head and gently raised him up; flexing his wrist and patting the boy’s cheek with his fingers. “Come on, son,” he coaxed; waving the coffee beneath the boy’s nose. “You need to drink something.”
The aroma of the strong brew worked its magic. Johnny tipped his head forward, his lower lip jutting out in search of the brim of the metal cup; and he began to drink. He was surprised, and then grateful, the Old Man had cut the potent chicory blend with tinned milk. His stomach was empty and the warm liquid soothed his hunger and his raw throat.
And then he felt it; the warmth and the wetness. His bladder let loose, as if the organ had a mind of its own; and the small cabin seemed to fill with the pungent odor of urine. Eyes screwed shut; he lifted his left hand and pushed the cup away.
There was an awkward silence.
Murdock eased his son’s head back down on the pillow; the corners of his mouth twitching as he considered the boy’s embarrassing predicament. Without saying anything, he levered himself up from the bunk and went in search of Johnny’s saddlebags.
Johnny tentatively opened one eye; relieved when he looked up and saw his father’s back was to him. The relief turned to horror when his father turned around. Murdoch was shaking out a pair of less than clean cut-off underwear bottoms; the once white fabric a dingy shade of grey and thread bare at the ass end.
Fuckin’ perfect, Johnny thought. If the pain he was feeling didn’t kill him, he was going to die of flat out mortification. He struggled to push himself up with his good arm; and failed.
He endured his father’s ministrations; staring hard at the ceiling. It didn’t help his mood any that the Old Man was not only taking his own sweet time cleaning up the mess; the old bastard seemed to be enjoying it. Murdoch was handling him like a two-year-old; lifting his butt away from the damp mattress, shoving a folded, dry blanket into place, and then – Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ! – easing him into the pair of cutoffs as efficiently and gently as Mamácita diapered a newborn.
Whatever small shred of dignity the boy had retained was immediately shot to hell when his father shook out the damp bedding and the wet underwear and held them up for close examination.
“A fuckin’ blind man could see I pissed myself, Old Man!” Johnny shouted angrily; his cheeks coloring. This time when he attempted to shove himself up from the bunk; he succeeded. The sudden pain in his left knee put him flat on his back before he could utter even one more obscenity. Teeth clenched, he fought to stop the involuntary groan and sank back against the mattress.
The underwear and bedding momentarily forgotten, Murdoch was beside the bed in less than a heartbeat. Johnny swung at him with his left arm; only to find his father’s massive hand closing around his wrist.
“Stay still,” Murdoch ordered. His right hand was gingerly exploring the injured knee; a frown coming as he felt the heat of damaged tendons. “Damn it, boy,” he swore; forgetting his resolve to not lose his temper, “settle down!”
“Fuck you!” The words came through clenched teeth.
Murdoch inhaled; counting to ten in two languages. “I was examining the bedding and your undergarments for blood,” he announced; “which is exactly what Sam would have done if he was here; and something he will ask about once we have you home.” The palm of his right hand was now firmly in place against the boy’s sternum. Beneath his fingers, he could feel the steady but rapid thump-bump of his son’s heart, and the angry rise and fall of the boy’s chest.
The pain was etched across the boy’s face; as was the anger. He was looking everywhere but at his father; stubbornly biting his lower lip as he attempted to regain control. “Just pop it back in place,” he gasped; indicating the knee with a single bob of his head. “Just fuckin’ do it!”
Murdoch shook his head. He released his hold on his son, and picked up the bottle of laudanum.
Johnny’s eyes were now locked on his father’s left hand; on the bottle in his father’s left hand. He swallowed, hard, watching as the man pried the cork free with his thumb and deftly poured a measure of the drug into the tin cup that had been used for water the previous night. “I’m not takin’ it,” he said. “Goddammit, Murdoch! I’m not fuckin’…”
The battle was over before it began.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He’d left the cabin door ajar. Johnny was finally quiet; his left leg propped up with the small pillow from the top bunk, a wool blanket covering him completely.
Murdoch dragged a weary hand across the whiskers bristling his chin, his fingers crooking to scratch at his right cheek; his gaze firmly fastened on the horizon. He saw the two riders, and felt a momentary twinge of relief. Stepping down from the porch, he called out in greeting. “Walt! Martín!”
Both men pulled to a halt in front of the tall rancher. “Mr. Lancer,” Walt greeted.
Martín’s greeting was more subdued, the single word heavily accented. “Patrón.” The Mexican was the elder of the two riders. Slim, taller than most of the vaqueros who lived and worked on the estancia; Martín Ortíz kept to himself. He was a man of many skills. He played the guitar; melancholy tunes sometimes, on other occasions the stirring flamenco of his Andalusian ancestors.
He was also master tanner, and highly skilled as a saddle-maker. His gift of patience and his nimble fingers provided Lancer with the finest braided reatas and tooled leather tack; renowned for their quality throughout the valley and beyond.
Johnny had been a willing student when Ortiz offered to share his skills. The vaquero had gently told the boy he had magic in his fingers; and the ability to use his hands to build something beautiful, and Johnny had been instantly intrigued.
Murdoch – his mind suddenly flooded with an image of Johnny diligently working multiple strands of leather as he concentrated on plaiting a reata – stepped closer to Ortiz’ gelding and addressed the man. “We had to destroy the paint,” he said, nodding towards the tarp-covered remains in the corral. “I thought you might have some use for the hide and the hair, Martín.” Hesitating, he took a breath. “Johnny doesn’t know,” he finished.
Ortiz eyes narrowed as he considered the Patrón’s quiet declaration. “Seré discreto, Señor,” (I will be discreet, sir,) he promised. He backed up his gelding, and headed towards the corral.
“Scott’s coming with the wagon, Mr. Lancer,” Walt announced. “He and Mateo left right behind us.”
Murdoch approached the young man’s horse; reaching out to lay his hand against the sorrel mare’s neck. “You heard what I said to Martín, about Johnny not knowing?” he asked, giving the animal a final pat.
Walt’s headed bobbed. “Yes, sir.” He was quiet a moment. “How is he?”
There was a soft rush of air as the rancher exhaled. “Better than he should be,” he answered truthfully. “Martín is going to need your help.” He gestured toward the corral.
Already, Ortiz had begun removing the canvas tarp that was covering the paint. An iridescent scattering of what appeared to be blue-green beads rose up from the ground as a swarm of flies spiraled skyward; the buzz of wings surprisingly loud above the early morning quiet. The carcass had already begun to bloat.
Murdoch stood for a time, a macabre fascination rooting him to the spot as the two men looped their lariats around the piebald’s front and hind legs. The sickening, sweet smell of death was now emanating from the corral; not quite offensive, but markedly tangible.
He watched as the two men guided their nervous animals through the wide-open gate; the jingle of spurs and curb chains coming one with the measured clop of shod hooves cutting into the caliche. The ropes began to groan as the two horses gained purchase; followed by the slow scuffing sound as the body of the paint was dragged across the earth and away from the pen.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The small wagon was traveling at a steady clip; the well matched team moving at a brisk walk. Behind the buckboard trailed two other draft animals; their shared bloodlines evident in conformation and color. All four horses were bays; with black manes, tails and stockings.
Scott shifted uncomfortably on the wagon seat; a soft damn coming as the buckboard’s right rear wheel rolled over a large rock imbedded in the rutted roadway. He cut his eyes toward Mateo, catching the man’s quick smile. “Sorry,” he apologized; a sheepish grin coming.
“I was asleep, too,” Mateo confessed. He stretched, his arms going high above his head. “Good thing they know the way.” Like Scott, the young man was now fully awake.
Now is as good a time as any, Scott mused. “We’re going to have to do something about Johnny and Paco,” he breathed. “This…
“…pissing contest?” Mateo interrupted; stifling a yawn.
“…has got to stop,” Scott finished.
Mateo was staring straight ahead; watching the teeter-totter sway of the bays hips as the horses responded to the gentle slap of leather against their rear ends. He and Scott spent a great deal of time discussing their younger brothers; the frustration of having younger brothers. “Modoc Charlie told me he saw Johnny and Paco up at Cedar Lake; jumping into the falls.” Digging into his shirt pocket, he produced a pair of tin-foil wrapped cigarillos. When Scott nodded, he unwrapped the smokes; lighting both of them before handing one off.
Scott took the small cigar; inhaling deeply, welcoming the sharp bite of the rum-soaked tobacco against his tongue. He deftly took hold of the lines with one hand and took another drag on the smoke. “Last week,” he murmured, a stream of blue smoke coming with the words. Like Mateo, he was not a regular smoker, but there were times… “When the two of them disappeared while we were up at the mill?”
Mateo nodded. The four of them had spent two days at Lancer’s saw mill; sorting and stacking planking that had been salvaged from the fire Pardee’s men had set as a diversion during one of the final raids. It had been hot, dirty work; more tedious than tending cattle, and both Johnny and Paco had been rebellious. The fact the two youths had constantly bickered hadn’t helped.
In the end, Scott and Mateo had been grateful when the pair disappeared. The work had gone a lot smoother without all the distraction and the complaining.
Scott’s brow furrowed. The cascades above Cedar Lake were a mere trifle when he thought of the wild grandeur of the falls at Niagara in New York; but they were deceptively dangerous. The thought of Johnny and Paco playing fast and loose climbing and diving from the moss-slick heights into the rock-strewn lake ignited the anger that had been simmering since Johnny’s covert departure with the paint. “Have you ever had the urge to strangle the life out of Paco?”
Mateo laughed. “Since he was able to walk,” he responded wearily. Paco had been born shortly after his tenth birthday; he had wanted a puppy. He made a wringing motion with his hands. “Everyone at the estancia called him el niño del Diablo.” (the devil’s child.) He playfully jabbed his elbow into the younger man’s ribs. “Until your brother came home,” he grinned.
Why am I not surprised, Scott thought. “I’m going to kill Johnny,” he seethed. “Just as soon as he gets well.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
High above the small cabin, a pair of condors danced a slow, strange tarantella as they glided noiselessly across the bright blue sky. The sun glistened against the black feathers; a scattering of white wing feathers stark against the darkness, the birds’ bright orange heads barren of down and stretched forward, their eyes searching the terrain far below. Gracefully, the long wings began to change position; the great beasts beginning a slow spiral towards the earth. Below them, a flock of turkey vultures mimicked their moves.
The sweet smell of decay had drawn the scavengers. The smaller hunters, the turkey buzzards, seemed unaware of the larger birds as their circle tightened; and the lead buzzard began its sudden drop.
A slow, steady flapping sound came as the condors began a similar, more deadly descent. Using their tails as a rudder, the large hunters picked up speed. The scavengers’ ten-foot wing spread and bulk gave them the advantage as they swooped downward with deadly intention; the twenty-five pound birds crashing into, and cutting through, the flock of smaller birds. Three of the turkey vultures were immediately stunned and began plummeting like rocks toward the earth; the remainder of the flock scattering.
The condors continued their descent.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch stepped out onto the small covered porch; his hand still on the doorknob as he watched the approaching wagon. Scott was driving; Mateo sitting beside him. Both young men appeared weary; as if the weight of the world were resting on their shoulders.
The buckboard rumbled to a complete stop. Scott set the hand brake, looping the leather lines around the long handled lever. When he dropped to the ground, he took a long moment to stretch to his full height and rolled his shoulders. “Murdoch,” he greeted. The fatigue was in his voice. Briefly, his gaze shifted to the corral. The clear marks of two shod horses and a wide furrow in the dirt told him more than he wanted to know.
Murdoch’s face mirrored his concern. “Have you slept at all, son?” he asked.
Scott’s smiled. “And you, sir?” he countered. His voice was strong, in spite of his fatigue; but he knew his father wasn’t fooled. He needed a diversion. “How’s Johnny?”
A hinge squeaked as Murdoch stepped backwards and opened the door to the cabin wider. “Holding his own,” he answered, knowing it would be useless to press his elder son. “I’ve got fresh coffee.” He turned his gaze to Mateo, who had dropped to the ground on the opposite of the wagon. “Mateo, come join us.”
The three men filed into the cabin. Murdoch nodded toward the bunk. “No fever to speak of,” he murmured. He sighed. “But I don’t think there’s a place on his body that isn’t bruised.”
Scott crossed the room, the fingers of his right hand hovering above Johnny’s forehead. The boy’s breathing was steady and there was no sound of congestion. “Laudanum?” he asked, relieved when he brushed the boy’s long hair aside the heat radiating from the youth’s skin was much less than he expected.
Murdoch had retrieved three cups from the small dry sink. “Yes.” He poured the coffee; adding a liberal splash of whisky to each mug and passed out the brew. “Sit,” he ordered, nodding toward the table.
Scott was blowing into his cup. He grinned across at Mateo. “I think we’ve been sitting long enough, sir,” he breathed. The smile slipped as he became more serious. “Four hours by wagon,” he said. “Thankfully, the storm changed course and blew back towards the coast; and we didn’t have to contend with any mud.” He took a long drink from the tin cup. “How soon do you want to start back?”
Murdoch considered the question. He would have preferred, for Scott and Mateo’s sake, to delay the trip until morning after the young men had rested; but he knew better than to suggest that option. There would be no rest for any of them until Johnny was home and in his own bed. He cleared his throat. “As soon as we’re able to get him into the wagon,” he replied, his tone apologetic. “I don’t want to be traveling in the dark.”
Mateo had finished his coffee. “I’ll hitch up the fresh team,” he volunteered. He hesitated. “Your horse, Patron?” Murdoch’s bay had been stabled in the small lean to.
Scott answered the unasked question. “My father will ride back to Lancer,” he said. Sitting a horse, the young man knew, was preferable to riding or driving the wagon.
“Will I?” Murdoch retorted.
There was an awkward silence; Scott’s eyes momentarily going wide. Then he met his father’s gaze head on; a slow smile coming as he saw his father’s lips twitching.
Murdoch smiled. “I appreciate your concern, son,” he said, the words coming softly and with great affection. He knew exactly what Scott was thinking. “Mateo will ride on ahead of the wagon, Scott. You and I can take turns driving and sitting in the back with Johnny.”
The father/son bonding moment was interrupted by the soft rustle coming from the narrow bunk. Johnny voice was hoarse; his tone surly. “You two gonna stand there all day yappin’ about who’s doin’ what, or are we gonna get this fuckin’ show on the road?”
Scott turned to look at his brother. He strode over to the cot, reaching out to place his palm against his sibling’s cheek; his head canting as he saw the blood-shot eyes. “And good morning to you, brother,” he greeted. Johnny was pale; his jaws clenched against the pain.
The younger man jerked away. “Keep your fuckin’ hands to yourself,” he snarled.
“I knew I could count on you to be your usual charming self, little brother,” Scott muttered. His eyes were busy exploring everything; his senses enhanced by his concern. And then he smelled it; the now subtle, yet distinct odor of urine. His nose twitched.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed in anger as he saw his brother’s expression, and he hunkered deeper into the mattress. The move only made him look even more like a sulking two-year-old.
Scott couldn’t resist. “It appears I should have had Maria pack some additional supplies,” he began, his tone solicitous. “Some flannel,” he saw Johnny’s frown deepen, aware also that the younger man’s left hand had fisted. “Perhaps even one of those glass bottles with the rubber nipple…”
“Scott.” Murdoch’s voice broke into the tense quiet, the warning clear.
Recognizing the tone and realizing he had gone too far, Scott turned to face his father. “My apologies, sir. I was out of line.” He turned back to his brother and attempted to make amends. “I’m sorry, Johnny.”
Johnny, it soon became apparent, was in no mood for an apology. He struck out with his left fist and planted a surprisingly solid punch to his brother’s thigh.
Mateo slipped across the threshold and headed for the wagon.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Twilight had just begun to spread its long fingers across the landscape, the sliver of a new moon beginning its slow climb across the pale evening sky. Fireflies danced and winked beneath the blossoming trees in the orchard; and the laughter of the children chasing the glow worms rose and fell with the warm breeze.
Stretching against the stiffness in his shoulders, Sam Jenkins watched as the buckboard passed beneath the arch. He’d had a full day. His early arrival at Lancer had been fortuitous and he’d gotten right to work. There had been an accident in the hog pen; where two of the stock tenders had been attempting to rescue an unexpected early litter of piglets. The foul-tempered sow had been hell bent on cannibalizing her offspring; the blood bath causing a feeding frenzy among the other hogs, which joined in on the carnage.
The sow had gone completely mad. The two ranch hands had been severely gored; the rips and tears in their legs and torso requiring extensive stitching. It was still touch and go for one of the men; and the other -- in all likelihood – would spend the rest of his life with a permanent limp.
Johnny, he hoped, would fare better.
The physician waited until the wagon reached the front entrance of the hacienda. Taking a deep breath and pulling himself erect; he squared his shoulders and moved forward.
Johnny was lying on a thin mattress on a bed of straw; unconscious. He was completely covered, but even with the blanket, Sam could see the un-natural slump of the boy’s right shoulder, and the heavy bulk of a bandage around the youth’s left knee. And the bruises... Johnny’s face displayed a profusion of color; shades of purple and plum. “Paco said he had been thrown,” he grumbled. “He didn’t say a word about a horse sitting on him.”
Murdoch was in the driver’s seat. The two day growth of whiskers added to the harshness of his features. “I don’t think anything is broken, Sam; but he’s bruised from head to toe.”
Scott was beside his brother; his left hand resting against the youth’s forehead. “He has a fever,” he breathed.
Sam snorted. “I was under the impression I was needed here,” he groused. “However, since it appears the Drs. Lancer are in control…” The words dripped sarcasm like cold molasses from a piece of day old bread.
Scott’s lips compressed in a tight line. He took a long, calming breath. So much for bedside manner. “I can carry him inside,” he announced. He began scooting toward the back of the wagon. Then, realizing the rebuke was justified; “I’m sorry, Sam.”
The doctor worked the pins loose from the tailgate. “I’m sorry, Scott,” he said; smiling when his words collided with the younger man’s quiet apology.
Murdoch was on the ground. He stretched, wincing as he felt the familiar pop in his lower back. “You’re going to need some help, Scott.” When the younger man shook his head, he persisted. “You’re dead on you feet, son. We both are.” He turned to look up at Mateo.
The vaquero quickly dismounted.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Sam had finished his examination. “Under the circumstances, he’s reasonably intact.” He removed his glasses, polishing the lenses with the corner of a clean handkerchief. “You were right in your assessments,” he murmured. “No fractures.” He put his glasses back on and resumed speaking. “The shoulder, considering this isn’t the first time it’s been dislocated, concerns me more than his knee, which is mildly misaligned; but both need to be put right.”
Scott turned to look at his father, who was hovering beside Johnny’s bed. He had never seen his father so disheveled or drawn; even during the time when Johnny was recovering from Pardee’s bullet, and he was worried. Not that he would voice those concerns; at least, not now. “What do you need, Sam?”
The physician was considering his course of action. “The knee first,” he answered. He made a kneading motion with both hands. “Work the kneecap back into its proper alignment; apply a wrap to keep it in place.” He frowned. “The shoulder will be a more complicated procedure; and we’ll have to bind his arm to keep it in position.”
Murdoch let out a long breath. Johnny’s arm had been immobilized on another occasion, and the boy had been impossible. The entire ranch had been in a state of turmoil dealing with his frustration.
A low moan cut into the quiet, and Johnny’s eyelids fluttered. Sam reached out, his hand immediately going to the boy’s forehead. “Johnny,” he said. He repeated the word a bit louder. “Johnny?”
The dark lashes flickered briefly; the lids widening and then opening. Confusion, and then pain, marred the blue eyes; which were temporarily vacant. And then the eyes focused on the far wall. “Home.” There was a slight pause, and the young man spoke again, the pain evident in his tone. “Water.”
Scott stepped forward to fetch the glass from the bedside table, only to find his arm blocked by Sam’s hand. When the physician spoke, it was to the young man on the bed. “Not yet, Johnny,” he said, the words coming softly. “We’ve got some work to do.”
Johnny’s head swung to his right; his gaze settling on the doctor’s face. “Thirsty,” he groused.
Adamant, Sam shook his head. He began removing his suit coat. “Later,” he promised. He turned to Scott and gave a subtle nod towards his medical bag.
Scott dreaded what was coming, but consoled himself with the fact that what he would be required to do was necessary. Adjusting the shoulder was going to necessitate something more than laudanum. He was suddenly aware of Johnny’s eyes on him, and purposely met the younger man’s dark scrutiny head on. A slight frown touched his lips as he saw his brother mouth the words ‘fuck you’; but he did not look away. Finally, Johnny’s head dipped against his chest in bitter resignation, the eye contact broken.
Johnny fought the morphine; purposely repositioning himself in a way that intensified the pain in his shoulder and his knee. He hated surrendering to the drug; despised even more the place that it inevitably took him: that deep, dark Hell where all the fantasmas (phantoms) from the past dwelt and awaited him with open grasping fingers and gaping, fang-filled mouths. It was a losing battle.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Five days into his recovery, Johnny was awake and aware. He was also in a foul mood. “I need to get out of this fuckin’ bed,” he groused.
Scott had just entered the room. He was carrying two plump pillows and a stack of fresh linens. Maria, he knew, was not far behind; and Murdoch was already in the hallway. “That’s the plan, brother,” he announced cheerily, ignoring the rude greeting. “Maria’s going to be changing the sheets, and you are going to be sitting in that,” he nodded toward the window, “chair.” He deposited his burden at the foot of the bed.
Johnny gaze swung to the overstuffed monstrosity that had been brought into the room for Murdoch; who had kept a nightly vigil since their return home. The chair had been built to accommodate Murdoch’s height and bulk; and was a perfect match to the leather chair in the Great Room. “And we’re gonna do that how?” Johnny snorted.
As if on cue, Murdoch strode across the threshold. Clean shaven and looking rested, the tall Scot was in his full tune-caller mode. “I’m going to pick you up and plant you there,” he answered. He turned to his elder son. “He’ll need a night shirt.”
Scott bit back the smile. Johnny’s face was awash with a myriad of emotion; surprise, awe and – finally – outright belligerence.
“Un-uh,” he sputtered. He clutched at his quilt with his left hand; bunching the blanket up around his chest. “I got on underwear,” he argued. “Ain’t like I’m layin’ here bare-assed naked!”
Murdoch harrumphed. “Maria intends to change your underwear as well as your sheets.”
Johnny’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. The idea of Mamácita trespassin’ into his nether regions conjured up fuzzy nightmares – God, he hoped they had been nightmares -- of hands groping at his butt after Sam had put him right. Screwing his eyes shut, he groaned. “Madre de Jesús, Old Man.”
There was the sound of a drawer opening, and then a sudden, crisp snapping noise as Scott, ever the helpful big brother, shook out a nightshirt and a clean pair of cut-offs. “Here you go, sir,” he said, handing the items off to his father.
Johnny cautiously opened one eye; swallowing hard as he spied the hated nightshirt.
“Me or Maria,” Murdoch threatened. “Your choice.”
The war of the wardrobe was over after a minor skirmish and a mere whimper.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott had moved the large chair as close to the open window as he could. Johnny was perched atop the two pillows, night shirt open at the neck and his face bathed in sunlight. The bruises on his faces were fading; and the abrasion across his forehead was almost healed. He still looked like hell.
“Do you want anything, Johnny?” Scott was tying back the draperies; allowing his brother an even broader view of the landscape outside the window.
“The key to the cell would be great,” the younger man replied wistfully.
“You are not in jail,” Scott pointed out.
“Might as well be,” Johnny muttered. He shifted in the chair. Leaning forward slightly, he strained a bit for a better view of the old guardhouse and the corrals. Barranca was romping with one of the yearlings, showing the bay colt who was boss. There were two other animals in the enclosure; an older gelding and a buckskin filly that was still getting used to its halter. “Where’s the piebald?” He turned to look up at his brother. “And don’t give no crap about the auction.” His chin dipped against his chest, his cheeks flushing as his voice lowered. “I know Murdoch and you didn’t make it ‘cause of this.” He gestured at his own body with a single wave of his left hand.
Just as quickly, the twinge of guilt – remorse -- passed. “And you sure in Hell better not be tellin’ me Paco’s been workin’ ‘im.”
It was a conversation Scott had hoped he could delay; even possibly avoid. “I can assure you, brother, Paco is not working the paint.” He raised his hand, stopping the next question before it could be asked. Although he and his brother often toyed with each other – played word games on their wary road of mutual discovery – he had been resolute in his early decision to never lie to his sibling. Johnny had been lied to too many times in his short life; and those lies had nearly destroyed him. He took a breath. “I shot the horse, Johnny.” Short, sweet and to the point.
Johnny’s entire body tensed. Fragments of memories – of smells – came back to him; bits and pieces of a mosaic scattered like a puzzle and in disarray. He remembered hearing one rifle shot; and what seemed to be an echo…The grim reality set in.
The eruption was sudden and volatile. “You son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny lurched forward in the chair, his face contorting as his left foot impacted against the floor. “You fucking son-of-a-bitch!! You had no right…”
Scott’s back stiffened as he pulled himself fully erect. He was about to speak when Murdoch charged across the threshold. “What’s going on here?”
Johnny was the first to reply. “He shot the fuckin’ paint!” he raged. He was trying hard to get to his feet. “Fucking pendejo (asshole)!”
Murdoch crossed the room. “That’s enough!” he roared. Forcing a calm he didn’t feel, he scooped his youngest boy up from the chair and headed back toward the bed. Scott quickly followed; pulling back the blankets. He exchanged a long look with his father and promptly left the room.
Johnny’s left hand was fisted and he was pounding on the bandage that secured his right arm to his body. His teeth were clenched, and tears were leeching from his eyes as he fought the pain.
Murdoch wasted no time in pouring a small measure of laudanum into the water glass on the bedside table. “Drink,” he ordered.
“Fuck you!” Johnny hissed. He regretted the words as soon as he said them. Knowing it was pointless to fight, he swallowed the bitter liquid. He felt his tongue go numb as the drug began to work. The small dose was just enough to take the edge off the pain, but did nothing to quell his temper. “He had no right,” he murmured.
There was a scraping sound as Murdoch pulled the small wooden chair close to the bed and sat down. He waited, his eyes boring into the youth; willing the boy to settle down. And then he spoke. “Your brother saved your life,” he said, absolutely no doubt in his voice or the words. “He did exactly what I would have done if I had gotten to you first. As it was, Scott risked his life riding down the side of that hill like he did, with absolutely no regard for his own welfare.” The vision of his blond-haired son urging his horse into a full run down the rocky terrain caused him to shudder. He shut his eyes against the memory, his voice softening as he regained control. “That horse was a rogue, John. It should have been destroyed the first time it attacked you in the corral; and would have been if I had been paying closer attention to what you and Paco had been doing.
“I won’t make that mistake again.” Finished, the tall Scot levered himself up from the chair. “And you will be apologizing to your brother.”
Johnny was staring hard at the ceiling. “That’ll be a cold day in Hell,” he snarled.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. Shaking his head, he said nothing and headed for the door.
Johnny heard the snick as the door closed. He was suddenly alone with nothing but his thoughts; and very uncomfortable in his solitude.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The next week passed with incredible slowness. Sam had come and gone twice; harsh in his scolding and his orders regarding exercises and what was and was not allowed. So Johnny had remained restricted to the upstairs; his room and eventually the hallway, and – once when he’d gotten bored and was on the prowl – Teresa’s bedroom. Maria had caught him; and there had been major hell to pay. And no dessert for two days.
Scott – who had, since their disagreement, been locking his own bedroom door -- had been sorely missed; although Johnny was too stubborn to admit it, just as he’d been unwilling to apologize. So the long days had become even longer. No chess, no card games, no pilfered, late night snacks. No books being read aloud.
Yep, Johnny pouted. Old Boston was a stubborn bastard. Just like the Old Man.
Another week dragged by. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Maria stood beside Johnny’s bed, her right hand thrust out. She was holding a pair of brand new, very clean, recently cut-off and hemmed underwear bottoms; a deep frown marring her face. “¡No permitiré que el doctor Jenkins le vea en eso sucio, ropa interior desigual, muchacho! Usted pondrá éstos ahora. Y si usted discute conmigo, llamaré a su papá, y lo dejo tomar el cuidado de materias. ¿Él que qué usted quiere?” (I will not allow Doctor Jenkins to see you in that dirty, ragged underwear, boy! You will put these on now. And if you argue with me, I will call your Papa, and let him take care of matters. It that what you want?)
Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, his quilt bunched up around his lower torso; a belligerent pout forming as the scolding intensified. His right arm was in a sling, but his left knee was no longer bandaged. And he had managed to put on a pair of clean white socks. “¡Madre de Cristo!” (Mother of Christ), he fumed. What was it with women and their stupid idea a man had to change his underwear every damned time he farted, or got a little snag? He repeated the blasphemy. “¡Madre de Cristo!”
Dumfounded, Johnny stared down at his right thigh; at the perfect, bright red handprint that bloomed just above his knee. Muttering under his breath, he grabbed the proffered undergarment. “Could use a little privacy here,” he groused; unable to meet the woman’s continued scrutiny.
Maria’s eyes narrowed, but she turned around. Arms folded beneath her breasts, foot tapping against the carpeted floor, she waited. Behind her, she heard the rustling of sheets and smiled.
“Done,” Johnny said, finally.
The woman executed a perfect about face. She extended her arm, wiggling her fingers, a smug grin coming as the youth surrendered his ‘soiled’ drawers. Reaching out with her free hand, she carded the boy’s hair with her fingers. “Now the doctor can see you,” she crowed.
Johnny rolled his eyes. “About time,” he murmured.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Two weeks,” Murdoch sighed. He took a long drink of his scotch.
“Actually, sir,” Scott said, “fifteen days, twelve hours, and…” his head canted as he waited for the minute hand on the Grandfather clock to advance, “twenty-two minutes. If anyone was counting.”
Sam Jenkins laughed. He saluted both men with his glass. “Now you know why I make house calls, as opposed to running a hospital.” The smile slipped. “He’s been doing the exercises?”
“Reluctantly,” Murdoch answered. “And with the usual complaints.”
Scott lounged back on the couch. A sly smile creased the skin behind his ears. “I wouldn’t know,” he grinned. When he saw the look on the physician’s face, he explained. “He isn’t talking to me.”
The doctor frowned. “Still angry about that damned horse?”
Murdoch stared across at his old friend. Sam rarely cursed. “He and Paco were engaged in some foolish contest,” he said. “The piebald was the tie-breaker, and Johnny is still sulking that it’s a draw.”
Sam shook his head. “So I can assume you and Cipriano have decided to put an end to the foolishness?”
Murdoch grunted his reply. “It’s one of the things I’m intend to discuss with Johnny once you’ve given him the all clear,” he promised.
Sam put his glass down on the end table. He rose up from the couch. “Shall we?” he invited, gesturing toward the stairs.
Murdoch nodded and stood up. “Scott, I want you to join us.”
The blond looked up, but made no effort to rise. “What’s the point, sir?” he asked.
“The point is, son, I want you to be there.”
Scott recognized the tone. He debated arguing; and gave it up as an unwise decision. Levering himself upright, he fell in behind as the two older men headed for the stairs.
They met Maria in the hallway. Murdoch smiled at the woman; fully aware of where she had been and what she had been doing. “I take it he’s presentable now,” he teased.
The woman arched her right eyebrow. “He has changed his underwear and socks,” she replied, “but he needs a haircut.” She cast a look in Scott’s direction; frowning as she visually measured the blond’s locks, which were almost as long as his brother’s.
“Saturday,” Scott murmured. “I was planning on getting it trimmed on Saturday.” What was it about this petite woman that made him all too often feel like a ten-year-old?
Maria harrumphed. “Ve que usted hace,” she ordered, making a snipping motion with her fingers. “¡Y usted estará tomando a su hermano!” (See that you do. And you will be taking your brother.) Her piece said; she marched down the hallway.
“I take it that was a threat,” Scott sighed.
“More like a promise,” Sam laughed. Maria, he knew, was not a woman to be trifled with. He nodded toward Johnny’s door.
Single file, the three men trooped across the threshold. Johnny was perched on the edge of his mattress. He had taken his arm out of the sling, and – his elbow raised – was slowly rotating it; his attention totally focused on his shoulder.
“I don’t believe I’ve given you permission to discard that sling, young man,” Sam admonished.
Johnny visibly jumped; his embarrassment at the reprimand clearly showing. He blew out a short breath as he considered a diversion, frowning when he spied his brother. Scott was standing behind Murdoch, leaning against the door jamb; his arms folded across his chest. “What’s he doin’ here,” he demanded, looking up at his father.
Murdoch eyed his son. “I invited your brother to join us,” he announced.
Johnny’s gaze shifted to his brother and he was instantly aware of the slight smile that tugged at the corner of his brother’s mouth on hearing Murdoch’s words. “Made you come, didn’t he?” he smirked.
Scott’s relaxed stance immediately changed as he pulled himself erect. “Trust me, brother; Murdoch did not make me do anything.”
Even Murdoch was caught unawares at Scott’s tone; suddenly reminded of their first meeting and the sharp ‘Will I?’ He cleared his throat. “Sam.” He nodded toward the bed.
The physician didn’t need any prompting. He got right down to business. Crossing the room, he reached out with his right hand, and began probing at the youth’s right shoulder. Using his left hand, he manipulated the boy’s arm in a series of slow rotations. “Any pain?”
Johnny debated lying. “A little,” he admitted. “Burns some if I move too fast.” Oooops.
Sam nodded his head. “The tendons,” he said, feeling for heat. Satisfied, he stepped back. “Stand up,” he instructed.
There was an awkward pause as Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest. He cast a covert look at the hallway, wishing the door was shut. Teresa had an annoying habit of popping up unexpectedly. Sighing, his left hand firmly knotted in the quilt, he did as he was told.
“I want you to put some weight on that leg,” Sam ordered. He backed up several more steps and beckoned with his right hand, gesturing for Johnny to walk forward. “Now turn around,” he made a circular motion.
Johnny felt like a complete tonto (fool). He completed the circle without tangling himself up in the blanket.
Sam was stroking his chin; his sharp eyes searching for any sign his young patient was attempting a ruse. Finally satisfied, he turned to address Murdoch. “Considering everything,” he began, “he’s doing surprisingly well.” It never ceased to amaze him how resilient the young man was.
Johnny was grinning full out; the relief evident. He dropped the quilt and headed for the armoire; intending to fetch his pants and his shirt.
“Just one minute, young man,” Sam called. He waited until the youth turned around. “There are going to be some restrictions, Johnny.”
Shit! Johnny took a deep breath. “Like what?” he groused.
Sam’s right eyebrow rose. Feeling a tad vindictive because of the youth’s tone, the physician began ticking off the list. “Light chores close to the house for the next week or so, and I want Maria to continue with the liniment rubs on your shoulder and knee,” Johnny, he knew, hated the vile smelling concoction; almost as much as he hated Maria’s vigorous applications. “You also need to keep doing the exercises.”
Shit fuck! “Can I ride?” The young man was smart enough this time to control his voice.
Sam exchanged a long look with Murdoch. “Barranca; or any other well-schooled horse. Certainly not dashing about like a reckless fool, or attempting to break some horse fresh off the range. In fact, for the next week, you will limit your riding to no more than four hours a day.”
Shit, fucking shit!! Johnny frowned. Might as well be stuck in a corral tethered to a snubbing post. He sucked up. “Can I get my pants?”
Sam nodded his head. “If you are planning on going downstairs, it might be a good idea.”
Gleefully, Johnny turned back to the wardrobe. He was aware of the hushed conversation between the three men, who were standing at the threshold; but chose to ignore the words. Pulling out his red shirt, he eased his arms into the sleeves. And then he shook the calzoneras. He slipped into the pants, buttoning the conchos at his waist; and turned around and immediately headed for the door.
“Not yet, son,” Murdoch said, reaching out to grasp Johnny’s upper left arm.
Puzzled, the youth looked up at his father. “Sam said I could go downstairs.”
“There’s something you need to understand, son,” Murdoch responded. “When you are ill, or you are recovering from some injury…” he stressed the word, “…Sam is, without question, the one who is charge.” He acknowledged the physician with a single bob of his head; intending the words as a belated apology. “However, once Sam has turned you loose, I am the one who will decide what you will and will not be doing. And right now, John, you and I have some unfinished business that needs to be addressed.”
Sam was picking up his satchel from the top of the dresser. He busied himself checking the straps. “I believe Maria has a piece of pie in the kitchen with my name on it,” he said.
Murdoch smiled. “You’ll join us for dinner?” He was still holding on to his son.
The doctor shook his head. “I need to go out to the Tyler’s yet,” he responded. “Check on that brand new baby boy.” He smiled.
The tall Scot chuckled. “Teresa told me.” His grin widened. “Silas must be quite pleased with himself, finally getting that son he always wanted!” Silas Tyler was two years older than Murdoch Lancer.
Sam laughed. “Silas may be pleased, but Eliza is more than a bit befuddled.” He shook his head. Life never failed to amaze him. “Three grown daughters and two grandchildren; and now a new baby of her own.” He picked up his bag. Tipping his head in Scott’s direction, he bade the young man goodbye. “Scott.” His gaze swung to the younger Lancer son. “Johnny.” The youth, he thought, looked like a rabbit which had just found itself in a snare. For a moment, he felt a twinge of guilt, leaving the boy to the wolves; but – remembering the circumstances that were the cause of his injuries -- he dismissed the thought. Whatever it was Murdoch was about to do or say; Johnny was certainly deserving of his comeuppance. He turned and left the room.
Johnny suddenly found himself the center of his father’s unwanted attention. He squirmed. “Need to use the jake,” he mumbled, hoping the ruse would work.
Murdoch wasn’t buying it. Johnny, he knew, had spent a good deal of time in the bathroom before Maria had pounded on the door and ordered him out. “Later,” he said. “After we’ve taken care of things here.”
Scott cleared his throat. “If you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said, assuming there was no reason for him to remain in the room.
Murdoch eyed his elder son. “I want you to stay, Scott. Please.”
The please surprised the tall Bostonian. It annoyed the Hell out of the younger Lancer, but he held his tongue. Johnny could count on one finger of one hand the number of times his father had ever said please to him; and that was when they were in the Great Room passing around a plate of Maria’s molasses cookies that somehow had gotten stuck on his lap.
And the more he thought about it, he was pretty damned sure that please had been more of an order than a request. Throwing caution to the wind, he spoke up. “And what if I don’t want him here?”
Murdoch’s fingers tightened on his son’s sleeve. “If you want Scott to leave, then I suggest you apologize.”
Johnny’s head snapped up, his tone incredulous. “For what?”
His jaws working, Murdoch considered his answer. “For being rude, disrespectful; and for behaving like a truculent two-year-old.” His voice lowered to a near growl. “Your brother made the proper judgment call when the paint attacked you; and he not only took full responsibility for that decision, but he also had the grace to tell you the truth about what he had done.
“You owe him an apology, and he’s going to have it.”
It was obvious Johnny was warring within himself; resentful of what he was being ordered to do, and clearly debating his next move. His options, he knew, were somewhere between nil and nada. He turned slightly, looking up at his brother. “Sorry.”
Scott bit his lower lip, stopping the smile. He had expected the usual not-so-contrite ‘Lo siento’. Johnny hated it when he was backed into that cramped corner where good manners – Murdoch and Maria’s stubborn insistence on proper social decorum – lurked. Returning his brother’s scrutiny, he decided to opt for a measure of fraternal vengeance. “For what?”
Johnny’s cheeks flamed a bright red. He sure in hell hadn’t expected that question! “For callin’ you a fuckin’ asshole,” he purposely stressed the last word, “and a fuckin’ son-of-a-bitch!” Again, the belligerent emphasis on the final words.
Murdoch knew exactly what his younger son was pulling; and made the decision to let it pass. He had other things to discuss with his hard-headed off-spring. “Now that you’ve had your…apology…” two can play this little word game, he thought, “Scott; perhaps you’ll excuse us.” His gaze shifted pointedly to the door.
Scott was smiling. “Of course, sir,” he nodded. “I’ll be more than happy to leave Johnny in your very capable…” his right eyebrow arched, “…hands.” He executed a precise about face and marched into the hall.
Johnny was staring hard at his brother’s back. Fuckin’ asshole, he thought. Still pissed, he turned to his father. “So we done here?” He attempted to pull free and failed.
Murdoch gripped his son’s arm a bit tighter. He pushed the bedroom door shut with his free hand and then pulled Johnny along as he headed for the boy’s bed. “Sit,” he ordered.
Johnny sat. Murdoch remained on his feet. “It appears, son, you are having a great deal of difficulty understanding some very basic rules about how this ranch is run. How I run this ranch.”
Shit! Johnny reached up, rubbing at the base of his skull. Already, he was getting a crick in his neck from looking up at his father; who appeared to be as tall and as massive as a California grizzly standing on its hind legs.
Inside the boy’s mind, he was already migrating to another place; that private destination where he willed his ears to cease functioning and commanded his brain to picture the girls from the Red Dog dancing naked atop the poker tables. It was a blissful place; one where he often sought refuge when his Old Man was on a rant. He stared up at his father, his expression properly attentive; but what he was seeing in his mind’s eye was not the Old Man’s face. Hell, no. What he was seeing was the bouncing butt cheeks of Miz Johnnie Mae Durant’s over-aged saloon hall queens as they lifted their skirts and presented their saggy bottoms in the grand-finale of their whisky fueled dance.
The sudden memory of Miz Johnnie Mae cutting wind the last time he’d caught her act proved the boy’s undoing. Bad enough he and the woman shared a first name, but the fart had been loud and extremely odiferous…
Unable to keep a straight face, Johnny fell backwards onto the bed; dissolving into a fit of uncontrolled, tear producing laughter.
“I don’t recall saying anything remotely amusing, John,” Murdoch ground out, the words whisper soft. He leaned forward suddenly, his arms rigid, his hands flat on the bed as he towered above his son.
Immediately, Johnny choked back the laughter. He opened his eyes. His father was nose to nose with him now; the man’s breath hot against his face. Murdoch’s right temple was throbbing.
“What did I just say to you?” Murdoch growled. In spite of the pain in his back, the big man remained in the same position, his son pinioned between his rigid arms.
Johnny tried to sink deeper into the mattress, but it wasn’t working. “Uh…somethin’
about the rules?” he guessed.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed; and he took a page from his elder son’s book. “Which rule?” he demanded.
Silence; complete, utter silence.
Shaking his head in frustration, Murdoch stood up. Bunching the front of the boy’s shirt in his right fist, he pulled his son into a standing position. “I’m going to begin again,” he intoned. “And I would advise you, son, to listen very carefully; because there is going to be a test.”
Johnny eyes rolled skyward.
Smack! Murdoch’s flat right hand smacked hard against Johnny’s left buttock. “Pay attention,” he ordered. “First and foremost, John,” he skewered the boy with a look; “When you are in this house, or working close to the house, you are expected to be at the table for meals properly attired, cleaned up, and on time.” He held up a single finger. A second digit rose. “Second; under no circumstances are you to leave this house – this ranch – without informing someone where you are going or how long you plan on being away. In fact, the standing rule on Lancer has always been that no one,” he repeated the words, “no one rides out alone.” He was quiet a moment, carefully plotting out the words before he said them.
To hell with it, he thought. There was no point in beating around the bush. “You were told, John; you were not to ride the piebald. In spite of that fact, you chose to sneak off by yourself; taking the horse with you, with every intention of doing what you had been expressly forbidden to do.
“And for what? Some foolish, boyish contest with Paco.” He hesitated, keeping a firm lid on his growing anger. “I’ve spoken with Cipriano. Your uncle and I are in agreement that this harebrained competition is going to cease; and you and your cousin are going to stop the game-playing. And, John, if you ever sneak off like that again; or disobey a direct order…”
Johnny’s lips were compressed in a tight line. “Told you when I first got here, Old Man. I ain’t very good at takin’ orders…”
Murdoch’s expression was identical to his son’s. “Well then, it’s time you learned,” he interrupted, his tone harsh. When he saw the belligerent pout, he reached out and pulled the boy to him; holding him tight against his midsection as he applied a series of solid smacks to the boy’s compact rear-end.
The bedroom door opened and, uninvited, Teresa stepped into the room; her mouth going. “Maria wanted me to tell you dinner…” Her eyes widened, and she gasped; her hands going to her lips. “Ohhhh.”
Johnny was still held fast; and was facing the door. Murdoch had just delivered yet another hard swat across his ass end; and Teresa had seen everything.
“Teresa!” Murdoch’s tone was sharp. Immediately, he released his son. “We’ve had this discussion before, young lady!” he said. He strode across the room, spun the young girl completely around; and – in spite of his already stinging hand – applied three very intense smacks to her rear.
Sobbing, and seriously regretting she was wearing trousers and not a skirt and petticoats, the girl hot-footed down the hallway to her room.
Murdoch stood, rubbing his right hand against his thigh. Without turning, he spoke to his son. “I expect you to be at the table on time for dinner, Johnny. Understood?”
Swallowing hard, the boy nodded his head. At least the Old Man had stopped calling him John. “Understood,” he answered. He was rubbing his butt. Damned, but he understood!
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Dinner had been an unusually quiet affair. Teresa and Johnny had both been quite subdued; had, in fact, avoided both conversation and eye contact. The quiet, Scott mused, had actually been…
He stepped across the threshold of the barn, hesitating as his eyes adjusted to the twilight darkness. A single, hanging lantern burned at the end of the long corridor; a small circle of light illuminating the place where Johnny stood grooming Barranca.
There was something comforting in the steady swish, swish, swish, of the boar bristle hand brush Johnny was using as he groomed the horse. The sound was rhythmic, akin to the three-quarter beat of a slow waltz, and Scott found himself thinking of Boston. He chuckled softly at his own foolishness and approached his brother, resisting the urge to dance.
Johnny was facing Scott, but his concentration was totally on the horse; on the work he was doing. “You keep that up, brother,” Scott began, “Barranca is going to make Cheval jealous.” He reached out, his right hand coming to rest on the palomino’s withers. “Unless Barranca doesn’t have any hair left, that is,” he teased. Arms folded, he leaned forward to rest against the horse’s back. “He does have two sides, you know,” he teased; flicking a bit of straw from Barranca’s right shoulder.
“Maybe you should just turn him around for me, Boston,” Johnny said. Swish, swish, swish.
Scott shook his head. “He’s fine tied off just like he is. And if I remember things right,” his left eyebrow rose, “when you were schooling me in the art of grooming,” he grinned at the memory, at his brother’s assumption he had never done such menial labor, “the proper procedure is for you to walk around his rear-end to this side, and to continue brushing from here.” He smiled across at his sibling; the smile fading as he spied just what it was that was hanging on the wall at Johnny’s back. “Oh,” he murmured.
Pegged to the back wall of the barn was the piebald’s hide; the tri-colored coat cleaned and raked. The rowel marks left by Johnny’s spurs were still evident.
“That’s the first time Ortíz hung any of his hides in here to cure,” Johnny grumbled. “Guess the son-of-a-bitch thinks he got a pretty funny sense of humor.” His back to the wall, he continued to brush Barranca.
Scott turned to retrieve a comb from the bucket of currying supplies that was hanging from a hook between the stalls and began working on Barranca’s mane; gently working through the tangles. “I think Martín was making a point,” he said, the words coming softly. His respect for the quiet Spaniard had just increased ten-fold.
There was a sudden change in the smooth tempo of Johnny’s brush; the soft swish-swish-swish intensifying for a brief time before the cadence returned to normal. “That point bein’ what, Scotty?” the boy returned; his voice taking on an edge.
Scott ignored the Scotty, the deep baritone carrying into the darkness as he resumed speaking. “That no matter how good you are at your trade, brother, the odds are that sometime, somewhere, you’re destined to find that one being that is going to leave you dead in the dirt; and all because you were too damned foolish or prideful to realize you should have just walked away.”
Johnny’s temper suddenly erupted. He raised his right hand and – as hard as he could – tossed the grooming brush directly at his brother’s head. Barranca snorted; dancing in place as he sensed the young man’s distress.
Scott had anticipated his brother’s response. He quickly side-stepped the throw; feeling the whoosh as the brush flew past his cheek with enough force he felt the long hair at his ear lifting before falling back into place. “Feel better?” he asked, the censure clear. He reached out, stroking Barranca’s neck in an effort to soothe the animal.
Johnny eyes were hidden by the cascade of black hair that had fallen across his forehead; but the angry pout – the belligerence – was plainly showing. The youth’s jaws tensed and it was obvious he was struggling to hold his temper. It was a losing battle. Finally, he spoke. “You ain’t talkin’ just about that fuckin’ horse, are you brother?” he drawled.
Restless, Barranca began pawing at the barn floor. The palomino tossed its head; snorting its displeasure as the halter was pulled tight against its ears. Its next move was to cow kick at Johnny’s right leg.
Scott’s expression was grim. “You know damned good and well what I’m talking about.” Reaching across Barranca’s back he grabbed his brother’s arm. “And as long as you’re already in such a foul mood, you may as well know Murdoch and Cip are in the Great Room talking, and have determined you and Paco need a long – possibly permanent -- vacation from your horse breaking chores.” His grip on Johnny’s arm tightened; his voice lowering. “Now, I would suggest you finish taking care of Barranca.”
Johnny pulled away; the sudden move causing Barranca to bolt a second time. Jesus, he hated it when his brother went into his Lieutenant Lancer mode.
He hated it even more when his brother pulled him up short and nailed him with a hard truth.
Closing his eyes, Johnny leaned into the palomino’s neck; his fingers carding through the horse’s thick mane then moving along the animal’s withers as he attempted to calm the gelding. Problem was; he was the one who needed calming. He kept caressing the horse, talking softly, feeling the heat generating from the palomino’s hide; his hand pausing as he felt the animal’s blood pulsing beneath his fingers. Barranca’s heart was racing; the beat indicating the animal’s unease, and Johnny found himself willing the horse to calm. At the same time, he felt the pounding in his own ears beginning to ease.
What the hell was it about this family shit that always caused his blood to rise; that caused his heart to pound within his chest with such fury he sometimes was unable to breathe? And the pain…
Fuck! He’d gotten over all that stupid shit the morning he woke up and found his Mama gone.
Until he’d come home.
Not that he hadn’t fought it. Hell. He was still fighting it.
Scott watched his brother; could see the war that was going on. Johnny’s shoulders were now pressed against Barranca’s neck; his hands busy caressing the animal. It was almost as if the boy was hugging the horse; embracing the animal and seeking solace in its companionship. Quietly, he withdrew.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
When Johnny finally composed himself, he looked up. Scott was standing across from him, and he was holding the brush. He sighed; Scott offered the brush. Reluctantly, he reached out. “Take it down,” he said; knowing full well his brother would understand.
Scott’s gaze shifted to the horse hide pegged to the wall at Johnny’s back. “No,” he said. He raised his hand, stalling the objection before it could be voiced. “You know the rules, Johnny,” he murmured. “Ortíz put it up there. It’s his work; it’s up to him to take it down.” He was quiet a moment. “Consequences,” he said finally.
Johnny’s head dipped against his chest. Christ, he hated that word. “C’mon Scott. I apologized,” he muttered. He decided, knew, he needed to try again. “Not even if I…” he began to stammer, and took a deep breath. “Not even if I tell you you was right about the paint?”
Scott chuckled. Leave it to little brother to try using a left-handed apology as a bartering tool. “Not even if you confessed to all your sins and gave up desserts for a month of Sundays.”
Fuck that, Johnny thought. “You’re a stubborn bastard, Scott; you know that? And you got a mean streak in you a mile long and twice as wide.”
Scott stepped away from the palomino; gesturing with his right hand. “Then we must be twins,” he teased. “You’ve been out here for more than an hour, Johnny. If you stay here much longer, Murdoch will come looking, and you’ll have him keeping you company while you finish up.” He smiled. “Do you have any idea how big a list of extra chores he could conjure up while you’re putting the final polish on Barranca?”
Johnny’s eyes widened at the thought, and he edged around the palomino’s rump to stand beside his brother. He started brushing, concentrating on the horse and nothing else. Swish, swish, swish. The rhythm was back.
“He tell you what happened when you and Sam took off?” Johnny asked.
The blond considered his answer. “He told me you had a discussion about the rules,” he answered.
Johnny blew out a breath. “Phhht. ‘Discussion’, my ass,” he breathed. His brow furrowed at the irony in what he had just said.
Scott bit his lip in an effort to stop the laughter. “You’re lucky, you know,” he said. “I had every intention of killing you when you were fully recovered.”
The soft swish stopped for a moment and then resumed. “Prob’ly would’ve hurt less,” Johnny snorted.
“Maybe not,” Scott countered. “I planned on taking my time.”
“So what stopped you?” Johnny gave Barranca a final sweep with the brush and then tossed it into the bucket. He gestured for Scott to move and opened the door to the palomino’s stall.
“Murdoch,” Scott answered. “He said he had seniority, and I’d have to wait my turn.” He hesitated, watching as Johnny secured the latch.
“You lookin’ to take your turn now?” Johnny stared up at his brother and then averted his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to fight with his brother. No. What he wanted was to get out of the barn and away from the stretched hide that hung at his back. But the vision was already burned into his brain; as intense as the tortured likenesses of the crucified Christ he’d seen in the Catholic churches his Mama had dragged him to when he was little.
The same images that still haunted his nightmares.
Scott inhaled and reached out to lightly cuff his brother’s jaw. “No. I’ve decided it would be more fun to let you live.” He took another deep breath, a good indication he had more to say. “I’m not sorry about shooting the paint, Johnny. I’d do it again if I had to make that same choice; my brother, or some rogue horse. I want you to understand that.”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest, and he was quiet for a long moment. “Still pisses me off,” he confessed. Not that he felt any real remorse about the piebald. He was frowning when he looked up. “What you said about Cip and the Old Man,” he breathed. “About me and Paco breakin’ horses.”
Scott sighed. He knew exactly where this conversation was heading, and mentally cursed his brother’s pig-headedness. “It’s not just about breaking the horses,” he said. “Murdoch and Cip have decided they are no longer going to tolerate the little games you and Paco have been playing.” When he saw his words were having absolutely no impact, he tried again. “The pissing contest, brother. The constant competition between the two of you over every little thing, from who can skip a rock the most times across the pond; to which one of you can piss the highest on the barn wall. If you don’t stop, there are going to be some serious consequences, and…”
Johnny’s fist slammed against the side of the stall. “Consequences,” he spat. “You ever get tired of sayin’ that fuckin’ word, Scott? ‘Cause I’m sure in hell gettin’ fuckin’ tired of hearin’ it!” His piece said, he took off for the door. He reached the threshold, and suddenly turned back; the words whisper soft but filled with stubborn determination. “We ain’t done; me and Paco. I got one more horse to bust; and if it ain’t here at Lancer, then it’ll be somewhere out there. And you, big brother, can just stay the hell out of it!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They had gathered for morning orders; the men clustered together in an effort to ward off the damp, spring cold. Cigarette smoke drifted with mist-like haze rising from the moist ground; the rising sun glistening across the dew-soaked grass, miniature rainbows forming on the droplets of water to cascade across the landscape; like tiny gemstones scattered across a carpet of green velvet.
Scott watched as the crews began to slowly break away, some heading for the corrals; others gearing up for a long day of rock picking and planting. He smiled across at his companion. “I take it our fathers have yet to enlighten us regarding our chores for the day, Mateo.” The smile grew. “Care to make a small wager?”
Mateo’s broad shoulders lifted in a resigned shrug. “It would be a waste of money,” he sighed. He nodded to the place where Paco and Johnny were standing. “We will be spending the day minding the niños.”
Heads together, Murdoch and Cip were still talking. Scott watched the two men; his head lifting slightly when Murdoch called out to his younger brother.
Johnny had just knuckle-punched Paco’s arm; and Paco was about to retaliate.
Oh, this is going to be interesting, Scott mused. He exchanged a quick look with Mateo, and the two young men moved forward.
Johnny was stalling. He stood just to the left of Paco, as if waiting. And then, allowing Paco to take the lead, he sauntered over to where his father was waiting.
Murdoch wasted no time in getting straight to the point. “The two of you will be working with your brothers today,” he began. “You’re going to be putting up a second fence around Sandia Springs.” His right eyebrow arched as he heard his younger son suck in a deep breath. “The two of you are going to work together. There will be no slacking off, no wandering off; and there will be no foolishness.
“This is not a contest.” He let the words sink in. “Cipriano and I have discussed this fully, and the two of you will not be indulging in any more of your reckless competitions. In fact, for the foreseeable future, the two of you will be spending a great deal of time together working; at a variety of chores here at the hacienda, as well as out there.” His one-handed gesture seemed to encompass the entire world.
Johnny was scuffing at the turf with the heel of his boot, his head down; his arms wrapped tightly around his upper torso. It was his first full day back on the job since his recovery, and he sure in hell hadn’t planned on spending it stringing any fuckin’ wire. Hadn’t planned on bein’ with Paco, either. At least not with Scott and Mateo babysittin’.
Paco’s posture and demeanor was, surprisingly, similar to his cousin’s; so similar Scott was reminded of a pair of bookends. He nudged Mateo in the ribs, grinning widely when the man acknowledged the shared thought with a single nod of his head.
Cipriano was speaking now, continuing the lecture. “Your brothers will be in charge,” he intoned. “You will obey them without argument, and you will not quarrel.”
There is a God, Scott thought gleefully. He watched as Johnny squirmed under the intense scrutiny; not missing the simmering rebellion. Just keep your mouth shut, brother.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “I want the two of you to shake hands,” he ordered gruffly.
Johnny’s fingers tensed as he kneaded the flesh above his elbows. Like that has a chance in Hell of happenin’.
Just do it, Scott thought, catching his brother’s eye as the younger man looked up.
Murdoch’s voice lowered, but the command in his tone was fully evident. “I’m going to count to three,” he murmured.
Scott held his breath. Finally, in concert, the two youths thrust out their right hands.
Johnny was grinning full out. He took Paco’s hand in his own and squeezed. Hard.
Paco’s jaws tightened, the handshake becoming a wrestling contest.
Murdoch reached out, his long fingers closing around both young men’s clenched hands. “That’s enough,” he growled. He was finding it increasingly difficult to not smack their fingers.
Johnny’s right shoulder hitched and he reluctantly let go. He smirked when Paco briefly shook his fingers to restore the feeling to his hand, and leaned forward a tad. “I win,” he crowed.
Scott swiped his right hand across his face, pausing to pinch the bridge of his nose in an effort to stop the headache that was just beginning. When he looked up, Johnny and Paco were just starting their race across the courtyard to where their horses were tethered.
What happened next would be the talk of the entire estancia for weeks to come. Scott watched in awe as his father and the Segundo exchanged a single glance and a shared nod.
Johnny felt the hand close on the back of his neck; his shoulders bunching as he was hauled up short and practically lifted off the ground. Peripherally, he saw Paco reacting the same way. Then he found himself being sharply jerked sideways; a broad arm encircling his shoulders and tugging him uncomfortably close.
The whuppings commenced.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott handed the canteen to his brother; watching as the youth took a long drink and then leaned forward to douse his bare shoulders with a brief splash of the now tepid liquid. The water trailed down Johnny’s back and disappeared into the narrow gap at the back of the boy’s trousers. “Wishing for some ice?” he teased.
Johnny’s head snapped up. “You got any idea just how handy Cip is with that god-damned quirt?” he pouted.
The blond smiled. “About as handy as Murdoch was with his belt when he took Paco in hand,” he answered. He nodded toward the other youth, who was diligently attacking the earth with the two-handled posthole digger. “Even you have to admit, brother, it was pretty impressive.” It had also been a complete surprise.
“Fuckin’ bushwhack,” Johnny muttered. He took another swig from the canteen, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
“Consequences,” Scott responded. “And likely to happen again if you and Paco make the mistake of resuming your little feud.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed as he considered his brother’s words. “Jesus, Scott,” he murmured. “The whole fuckin’ crew was there.” His cheeks flushed at the memory. It was bad enough when the Old Man had popped him on the ass in front of T’resa, but this…
“You didn’t seem to have any objections when ‘the whole fuckin’ crew’ was on hand to watch you and Paco playing your little games, Johnny,” Scott admonished. He raised his right hand, stopping the anticipated argument. “I think, little brother, Murdoch and Cip came to the mutual conclusion something more drastic was required than a lecture; since it was obvious neither one of you were listening.” He paused. “And it will happen again,” he repeated, “if you and Paco don’t reach some accord. I want you to think about that.”
“And if we don’t?” Johnny sniped.
Scott shook his head. “Two hundred square miles, give or take,” he reckoned. “That’s just the perimeter of Lancer; and doesn’t take into account the individual pens or places like this,” he gestured toward the springs. “That’s a lot of wire and post holes, brother.”
Johnny grimaced. He’d be old, bald and toothless before that happened. Hell, he’d be lucky if he still had a pecker, or remembered what it was for. The thought gave him an itch in a place he couldn’t scratch; made him warm in places the sun didn’t shine. He shook the canteen and poured what was left of the water over his head. Like a puppy coming in from the rain; he shook off the water, grinning when the excess spattered his brother’s shirt. “I ain’t shakin’ hands with him again,” he said finally.
“I was thinking more along the lines of kissing and making up,” Scott snickered. He quickly side-stepped as his brother took a punch at his head.
“It’ll be snowin’ in Hell before that ever happens,” Johnny snorted. He capped the empty canteen and handed it off to his brother. “And I ain’t backin’ down if he starts somethin’,” he declared.
“He won’t,” Scott vowed. He nodded toward the fence line. Mateo, he knew, was having a similar discussion with Paco. Shading his eyes, he shifted his gaze skyward; checking the sun’s position on the western horizon. “I think we can call it a day, Johnny.”
The younger man sighed. “We could finish the fencin’ quicker if we camped out up here,” he said. “Give us more hours on the job, if we weren’t goin’ back at night.”
Scott gave his brother’s shoulder a hearty thump. “That’s a good idea, brother. I think you should mention it to Murdoch tonight; after supper.” He was dead serious.
Johnny looked at his brother as if he was crazy. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Right after we’ve had dessert.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the leather ottoman. “So how did it go out there?” he asked. He took a drink of the Glenlivet; absently patting his full stomach. Dinner had been more than satisfying, and topped off with a velvety baked custard.
Scott was lounging against the arm of the couch, a glass of brandy in his right hand. His gaze was fastened on his younger brother, who was spread out on his belly in front of the banked fire; his head resting on his forearm, feigning sleep. “It went…” he hesitated, aware of a subtle shifting in his brother’s shoulder, a mere twitch, “…extremely well.” He cupped the snifter against his palm, swirling the liquor and watching as it climbed up the interior of the glass. “It was also quite peaceful.” Unable to resist the temptation, he stretched out his right foot and nudged his brother’s arm with his toe. “Johnny came up with an excellent suggestion regarding the work up at Sandia Springs,” he announced.
His interest peaked, Murdoch paused mid drink. His gaze shifted to his younger son. The boy, he knew, was pretending to be asleep. “Johnny,” he called softly.
There was no response. Scott shook his head. Johnny tended to withdraw, sulk, after he had done battle with or had been reprimanded by his father; sometimes for days. Murdoch, on the other hand, didn’t dwell on the past – recent or otherwise. Silently acknowledging an encouraging nod from his father, Scott toed Johnny’s arm a second time; smiling when his brother pretended to wake up.
Johnny rolled over and pushed himself upright; resting on his elbows for a moment before carding the fingers of his right hand through his hair. He sat up, Indian-fashion and faked a yawn. “Had a long day, ya know. Kinda tired,” he groused.
Scott smiled, sympathetically. “Sorry, brother,” he fibbed. “Murdoch was calling out to you.”
The brunet rolled his shoulders. “For what?”
Murdoch’s lips were twitching. “To tell you it’s time to wake up and go to bed,” he answered, straight faced. Before the youth had a chance to reply, he continued. “Scott said you had a recommendation about the fencing up at Sandia. I’d like to hear it, son.”
Johnny’s head tilted slightly to one side and he cast a quick look at his elder brother. He was considering giving Scott the finger; but changed his mind when he realized the Old Man was watching him. Fuck. He studied his hands for a time before looking up. “Just figured we could get in more work time if we camped out, ‘stead of spendin’ all that time travelin’ up and back every day.”
Scott had risen up from his seat and was moving around the end of the couch, heading for the drink table. He filled his snifter; carrying the decanter of Glenlivet back to refill his father’s glass.
Murdoch took a sip of the scotch, his expression thoughtful. He waited to speak until Scott had settled back in. “That’s a sound idea, son,” he said finally. “But it would mean eating trail rations; beans, fatback and coffee.” He saluted his younger son with his glass. “Three times a day and no dessert after supper.”
Johnny’s face registered his surprise. “What?”
Scott wasn’t faring much better. The conversation had taken an unexpected turn. He came forward in his seat, his elbows resting on his knees; the brandy glass between his palms. His first instinct was to take a drink, but he changed his mind.
Murdoch was staring into his glass. “You do know, Johnny; that with rank comes privilege.” He canted his head in Scott’s direction, smiling; knowing the younger man was familiar with the phrase. “As a one third owner of Lancer, and the tune-caller’s son, you do have some other choices besides sleeping on the ground when you’re working close to the house.” The smile grew. “Like being able to come home every night to one of Maria’s excellent dinners,” he reached out a long arm to tap the younger man’s knee, “and a comfortable bed.” When Johnny remained silent, he repeated the same words he had said earlier. “Think about it. Beans, fatback; coffee.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed. He could swear he could smell the subtle aroma of the vanilla Maria had used to flavor the after-dinner dessert. Shit! He hadn’t given much thought to the food thing. Behind him, he heard Scott laughing; softly. He realized then that his father was teasing. Well, two can play this fuckin’ game. “I got it figured this way, Old Man,” he began; levering himself up on his stockinged feet. “Tomorrow’s Tuesday. We camp out, that gives us, four…” he held up the appropriate amount of fingers, “…maybe five extra hours of daylight. We can get the fence wrapped up by, say, Saturday mornin’; and be back here in time for the fandango!”
Murdoch looked up at his son. “Fandango?” he parroted.
The younger man was almost dancing in place. “Yeah,” he grinned. “The one you’re gonna toss to celebrate that fence gettin’ put up quicker ‘n spit; and to make up for the shi…lousy food we’ll be eatin’ while were out there bein’ responsible and savin’ all that time.”
Scott’s laughter was louder now. He stood up beside his sibling; wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “You’re getting pretty cocksure there, brother,” he teased. “So what do you think, Murdoch?”
The tall Scot was on his feet now. “I think,” he nodded toward the Grandfather clock, which was poised to strike the hour, “it’s getting late and we need to turn in.” Then, reaching out; he cuffed his younger son’s ear. “It is a sound plan, John,” he intoned. “And I have every confidence you can get it accomplished within the time frame you’ve calculated.” His fingers lingered briefly on his son’s shoulder as he gave the youth an affectionate squeeze. And then he headed for the stairs.
Surprised – puzzled -- Johnny stood quietly for a time, staring hard at his father’s back. He quickly recovered. “And the fandango?” he hollered.
“Just be there on time; noon Saturday,” Murdoch called back over his shoulder.
The two brothers stood for a time, staring at the now dark hallway. Johnny was the first one to speak. “Did’ja hear that, Scott?” he breathed. “He said it was a sound plan.”
Scott nodded his head. “And that he has every confidence you will get it done in the time you promised.” He knuckle punched his brother’s upper arm. “We’re going to have to work…”
“…our asses off,” Johnny finished. He was silent for a long moment. He had pulled out his shirt tails, and was rolling the hem up between his busy fingers; studying the fabric as if was some living thing that would respond to his touch.
“Something on your mind, brother?” Scott asked, the words coming softly.
Johnny’s eyebrows lifted as he pondered the question. “Can’t figure him out,” he said finally, his tone matching his brother’s. “One minute, he’s tearin’ me a new one about how I ain’t got the sense to pour piss out’a boot, and how – just because I’m his son – I’d best not expect him to cut me no slack; and the next he’s tellin’ me I got choices about where I sleep and what I eat.”
Scott patted his brother’s shoulder. “What he’s suggesting, Johnny; is called striking a balance, what the Chinese refer to as yin and yang.” He saw from the boy’s expression he needed to make a better analogy. “Harmony,” he said finally; joining his hands together, his fingers intertwining.
A wicked fire suddenly sparked in Johnny’s blue eyes. “You mean like when the Widow Hargis and Mayor Higgs are singin’ in church?”
Inside Scott’s head, the irritating screech of sharp fingernails across a slate board sounded; causing a sudden pain deep in his head. He finger-thumped his brother’s noggin, just above the boy’s right ear. “The two of them…” he searched for the right words, “…attempting to sing is an abomination against nature,” he complained. He brightened. “Think Murdoch and Aggie Conway.” Now there was a pleasant sound; Murdoch’s rich baritone with Aggie’s sweet contralto.
Johnny was rubbing at the back of his neck. He wasn’t all that happy about being reminded what sweet music his father and Aggie made; not when it set him to wondering about what else the two might do well together. The thought caused him to frown, and he opened his mouth to speak. “About that music Murdoch and Aggie make…”
“BOYS!!” The voice thundered from above them, resonating with all the authority of God Himself. “BED!!”
Scott laughed, softly. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to save that question for another time, little brother.” He jabbed a single forefinger at the ceiling. “Our Lord and Master has spoken.”
Johnny knew it would be useless to argue. Besides, it was gettin’ late, and mornin’ really did come early at Lancer. He looked up as Scott moved past him to head for the stairs; turning quickly and trotting along behind. “I ain’t lettin’ it go that easy,” he whispered, poking his brother’s shoulder with his fore and middle finger. “You ever wonder what else it is the Old Man and Aggie get up to, besides makin’ all that ‘harmony’ in church?” They had almost reached the top of the stairs; and Johnny was thinking hard on the weekly private dinners Aggie hosted. “I mean, they might be old, but they sure in Hell ain’t dead…”
Scott picked up the pace; the smile on his face making it impossible to turn around and respond to his brother. “Far from dead,” he murmured knowingly.
Johnny’s pace slackened, but he quickly caught up. He snagged his brother’s arm. “You know somethin’ I don’t?” he asked; the question somehow accusatory.
“Well, there are those weekly dinners.” Scott looped an arm around his brother’s shoulder and guided him down the hallway. “And that trip to Stockton after Pardee was defeated.” He bit his lip in an attempt to stifle the laughter. “I suppose they could have stayed in separate rooms, although I seem to recall Murdoch’s preferred hotel has adjoining suites.” He squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “I’m sure they were discreet.” Then, knowing he had his sibling’s full attention, he changed the subject; “Isn’t that something? What Sam said the last time he was here; about Mrs. Tyler and her new baby boy?” Teresa had been nattering on about the baby all week. “Word is she wasn’t even aware she was with child. It was quite a surprise.”
Johnny stopped dead in his tracks. They were now standing at his bedroom door. “Ain’t she a friend of Aggie’s?” he whispered.
Scott nodded his head. “It’s my understanding they knew each other back East, when they were just girls. Schoolmates, I think.”
Johnny was doing some serious mental arithmetic. “So you’re sayin’ they’re the same age?” he asked, the words coming in a rush and louder than he intended. “Old lady Tyler, and Aggie?”
The blond was stroking his chin. “Yes,” he answered, dragging the word out. “Why?”
“WHY?” Johnny almost shouted. He felt a deep clenching in his gut. “What if Aggie…” he sputtered. “What if her and the Old Man…” He couldn’t say the words, but he sure in Hell was thinking them.
The sound of Murdoch’s bedroom door opening caused both young men to look up. Apprehensive, they watched as their father stepped into the hallway.
“And why are the two of you not in your beds?” Murdoch growled. It was clear from his tone and his expression he was not a happy man.
The words tumbled from Johnny’s mouth before he could stop them. “How old is Aggie?” he demanded.
“And what business would that be of yours, young man?” Murdoch shot back. It was still a mystery how his youngest son’s mind worked. “Go to bed,” he ordered, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. He turned to go back into his room.
Once again, Johnny’s mouth opened before his brain was fully engaged. Too late, Scott reached out in an attempt to stifle what he knew was coming. Johnny pulled away. “I ain’t babysittin’!”
Thoroughly perplexed, Murdoch Lancer swung around. “What?”
“I ain’t babysittin’!” Johnny repeated; louder than before.
Scott had his brother by the scruff of his neck; his other hand now securely covering the boy’s mouth. “Probably too much sun today, sir,” he called out. “He’ll be just fine in the morning.” Opening his brother’s bedroom door, he shoved him across the threshold.
And I actually paid them to come home, Murdoch thought drolly. Shaking his head, he entered his room – his sanctuary – and shut the door. Already, he was formulating a plan for the impromptu barbeque he would be hosting for his sons on Saturday. He smiled. Aggie, he thought. I’m sure Aggie would like to help.
He was so pleased both his sons actually liked the woman.