Disclaimer: Whatever. I’m too tired to care about who may or may not own what; and would be happy to meet anyone anywhere in the middle of the street at high noon to discuss the possibilities.
The Proof is in the Pudding…
They were standing at attention in front of Murdoch’s desk; holding their breaths in anticipation of what they both knew was coming. It was not going to be pretty.
It was never a good thing when Murdoch was quiet. He sat, deceptively calm as he leaned back in his chair; a soft but annoying sprung-sprung coming as he rocked back and forth. His normally tanned features were almost totally drained of color, and the skin beneath his right eye was twitching. “I want an explanation,” he began, his voice whisper soft like the sound of distant, mountain thunder, “of just exactly what you were thinking...” He stopped speaking, the frown deepening. “Strike that,” he snapped. “It’s obvious that neither one of you were even attempting to think. That would require using your brains!” Right now, he doubted that between the two of them they had one; at least one that was functioning.
Johnny made the mistake of relaxing just a bit, shifting his weight to his right foot. It took a single withering glare from his father to whip him right back into shape; and the next thing he did was mimic his brother’s perfect posture. Man. It hurts like hell to stand that straight! Wasn’t all that easy to talk, either. Go figure. He decided to try anyway. “C’mon, Old…uh…Mur…uh…Pa,” he finally croaked. He couldn’t help himself; he shrugged. “It’s Halloween.” Well, it was almost Halloween. The big day wasn’t until tomorrow, when Teresa was hosting her freakin’ fandango.
Murdoch came forward in his chair and buried his face in his hands. His fingers were scrubbing at his scalp, and he was muttering. Johnny snuck a look at his brother; hoping Scott could figure out just which language the Old Man was using this time to count to ten. Scott’s face was a total blank. He turned back to his father, wincing when he saw Murdoch’s hands were now fisted atop the desk.
“Are you trying to tell me,” Murdoch ground out, “that your celebration…” the word came from between clenched teeth, “of some idiotic, childish Holiday is the excuse you’re going to use to explain just why Teresa has taken to her bed?” He suddenly levered himself up out of his chair, towering above the desk as he moved to stand directly in front of his sons.
Both young men instinctively backed up a full pace. Clearly intimidated, Johnny’s mouth opened and the words just tumbled out. “Well, T’resa kept yammerin’ on about all that trick or treating crap.” He grinned, that lop-sided little boy grin that made him look like a ten-year-old; a thoroughly guilty ten-year-old. “So I gave her a trick, and a treat!” Well, actually he’d pulled a couple of tricks. But there had been just one treat.
“Did you know about any of this?” Murdoch said, zeroing in on his elder son. Above his head he heard the quick pattering of bare feet in the hallway; the opening and closing of the bathroom door. He grimaced as he heard the flushing sound. Teresa had spent the majority of the evening in and out of the bathroom; in fact, hadn’t come down stairs since going up to her room shortly after dinner. “Well?”
Scott was debating his answer, although he wasn’t sure why. This guilt by association was getting to be a tiresome thing. He was the elder brother, for God’s sake, not the accomplice. Well, not this time anyway. “I knew about the sheets and the pillowcases he used to make the ghosts he hung outside Teresa’s window last night,” he confessed. Not that his brother had bothered to tell him the linens were from his bed. The Egyptian cotton ones, too; soft, not starched stiff like the muslin sheets Teresa was always ironing.
He only had one other set of those sheets.
Rubbing his upper arm, Johnny grimaced. “Hey!” He turned to his brother, giving him a dirty look. Scott had just knuckle-punched him; hard. “He hit me,” he pouted, looking to his father for some sympathy.
“Not as hard as I should have,” Scott muttered; thinking of the ruined bed clothes.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. Scott was not usually the one who did the punching, and it only followed there had to be some reason. However, getting straight answers from either of his sons when there was mischief afoot was like pulling hen’s teeth. Well, two can play this game. “So you knew about the sheets. Did you know anything about the jack-o-lanterns?” he asked, fishing; keeping his tone neutral. Teresa had carved several jack-o-lanterns to decorate the patio; and had been frustrated when the candles failed to stay lit. She’d worn herself out, trying to keep the candles going.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny begin to fidget. Scott’s voice broke into the near silence before the man could call out to his younger boy.
“I knew Maria was originally planning to make pie out of the pumpkins Teresa didn’t carve into jack-o-lanterns,” Scott answered; purposely being vague. He’d caught Johnny urinating into the jack-o-lantern the girl had placed beside the front door; effectively dousing the candle. That memory alone was enough to cause him to punch his brother’s arm a second time.
“Stop hitting your brother!” Murdoch barked. His brow furrowed. “And Maria didn’t make pie; she made pudding,” he said. It was like having crustless pumpkin pie. It had been a delightful change from the norm; the rich pulp sprinkled generously with a variety of succulent spices. And Teresa had certainly relished the confection; had gone overboard in her enjoyment of the dessert.
Scott’s stomach was beginning to make rumbling noises; and he was feeling uneasy. He fisted his hand; stifling a burp, wondering now if it had been a wise thing to have such a generous serving of the pudding. Of course, the image of Johnny taking a whiz in the pumpkin by the door wasn’t helping. The rumble in his belly was getting louder, and he had the unwelcome sensation that something was going on in his lower gut that was going to be entirely unpleasant. The sensation, the gurgling, was getting worse. His face paled. “If you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said. He didn’t wait for any response. He made an immediate about face and double-timed it towards the stairs.
Johnny decided it might be a good time to leave, too. He cat-pawed toward the closest set of French doors, only to find himself yanked back before he could even grab the door knob. “Hey! Watch the hair!” he groused, swatting at his father’s fingers.
“You watch your hands, young man!” Murdoch groused, giving his son a shake. The entire day had been a strain. It had started just past midnight with the fake ghosts outside Teresa’s bedroom window, escalating to rubber snakes in her dresser drawer when she was preparing for her day, a large dead spider glued (thankfully) to the exterior bottom of her milk glass at breakfast; and bootblack on her saddle when she had gone for her morning ride.
In spite of dire threats from everyone in the household, Johnny had continued to pull one prank after the other. Teresa had been a nervous wreck the entire day. And Halloween wasn’t actually until tomorrow.
The foolishness was going to stop. Now.
Murdoch was still holding on to Johnny’s collar. He marched across the room and planted his son’s compact butt on the ottoman in front of his leather chair. “This is going to stop, Johnny,” he said firmly. “You’ve spent the entire day…” he raised his hand, stopping the words he knew was coming. “Don’t even attempt to tell me you aren’t responsible for all the mischief that’s been going on.” Hands clasped behind his back, he began to pace. “One foolish stunt after the other, scaring your sister half out of her wits.” He’d lost count of the number of times Teresa’s screams had punctuated the usual quiet during the increasingly long day. “If you think today is simply a prelude for the pranks you plan on pulling tomorrow, young man; I’m telling you hear and now you had best reconsider!”
The tall Scot paused in his pacing, bending forward to scrutinize his baby boy. Upstairs, the toilet flushed. Taking a deep breath, he opened his mouth to continue the lecture. And then, making an abrupt about face, he headed for the stairs.
They were in the hallway; just outside the bathroom door; Murdoch, Scott and a thoroughly drained and wan-looking Teresa. “I can’t be sick,” she sniffed. “Half the valley is coming tomorrow for the party.”
Murdoch was rubbing his belly. “I don’t understand it,” he muttered. “You, Scott and I are usually the last ones to have this kind of trouble. It’s Johnny who’s susceptible to…”
“Johnny,” Scott interrupted, his right eyebrow arching in suspicion. He swung his gaze first to Teresa; and then to his father. “The pudding,” he growled. “Did either one of you see Johnny eating any of the pudding?” It occurred to him now. Johnny had actually been the one to bring the dessert to the table.
Murdoch’s brow furrowed in deep thought. He closed his eyes, focusing his thoughts on replaying the events at the dinner table. All of them had over-indulged in the sweet pudding, taking larger servings than usual. Teresa, normally a light eater, had even had a second helping. In fact, Johnny had given her his full dish.
His full, untouched dish.
Three voices bellowed in unison. “JOHNNY!!”
There was no answer; just the swishing of dry leaves against the tiles at the bottom of the stairs. The front door was wide open.
He made it just beyond the arch when Barranca pulled up lame. His own damned fault, he scolded himself. He’d cut across the recently harvested corn field, knowing the cattle hadn’t been turned out to forage the area; the remaining corn stalks sticking up hard and sharp in long rows.
Dismounting, he picked up the palomino’s right foreleg, resting the hoof against his knee; using the light of the full moon as he probed the animal’s tender frog. Sure enough, a tough clump of dry corn stalk was wedged deep in the soft pad. Intent on his chore, he dug into his pocket, withdrawing his penknife; snapping open the short rounded blade that was shaped like a small spoon. “Sorry, compadre,” he breathed.
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be,” the deep voice rumbled.
Letting go of the horse, Johnny turned, slowly pulling himself erect. Murdoch towered above him; Scott just to his right and slightly behind. Neither man looked particularly happy. “Hey, Pa,” he greeted; his voice cracking. He nodded at Scott. “Brother.”
There was the gentle creak of leather as Murdoch dismounted. Johnny watched as his father approached; not for the first time noting just how tall -- how damned big -- his father was. Hell, the man blocked out the entire face of the cold, pale harvest moon.
Murdoch reached out; picking up Barranca’s dropped reins. He signaled for his elder son to join him. Reaching up, he handed Scott the leather straps. “Take Barranca back to the barn, son,” he ordered. “Your brother will be walking home.”
Scott gathered the reins in his hand, looping them once around his saddle horn. Speechless, he watched as Murdoch reached up to his own rigging to remove the doubled over lead rope that was hanging from the pommel.
He tried hard to resist looking at his brother; and failed miserably. Clucking to his horse, he urged the animal back; Barranca reluctantly in tow. Poetic justice, he mused; grinning when he heard his sibling’s useless and woeful entreaties.
“Aw, c’mon, Murdoch. I was only funnin’.” The rustle of dry corn came as the youth attempted to back away. “Jesus, Old Man!” The next sound was the noise of the lead rope slapping ominously against Murdoch Lancer’s solid right thigh.
Scott’s smile broadened. Yes, indeed. It was Johnny Lancer’s turn to be scared shitless.