Disclaimer: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I’ll think of one when I wake up. Maybe. I want to thank Judi for providing the plot bunny.
FIVE RULES FOR MEN TO FOLLOW FOR A HAPPY LIFE:
Johnny was lying on the couch; his head tilted back, an ice filled piece of doubled-over toweling pressed across his face. The fingers of his right hand were pinched against the fabric, just at the bridge of his nose. His head hurt, his digits were tingling and his nose was numb; but his ears were just fine. And someone was making a hell of a lot of noise.
Flick, flick. A pause now; followed by the whisper of a finger gliding across a thick vellum; and then the annoying flick, flick, as more pages were turned.
The boy heaved a great sigh. “Got a headache, ya know,” he muttered; wondering just how he had ended up on the couch in the first place. Raising his head slightly, he started to remove the damp cloth; changing his mind when his nose began to bleed. Again. “Scott?”
The page turning continued. “Yes.”
Johnny’s jaws tensed. Jesus. For someone who spent the last five minutes chewin’ my ass out for not layin’ still, big brother can be damned stingy with words when I’m lookin’ to talk. Then, concerned they weren’t alone, he whispered; “Murdoch here?” He sure in hell didn’t want the Old Man hovering.
There was a soft chuffing sound as Scott chuckled. “No. I assume he’s still in Green River.” He inhaled, “In all likelihood, talking to Val.”
Johnny lifted one corner of the cloth to glower at his brother. “About what?”
Scott looked up from his book to gaze at his sibling. Somehow the Madrid glare wasn’t all that intimidating when one of his brother’s eyes was well on its way to swelling shut. “I’m going to assume that is a rhetorical question and that you really don’t want an answer.”
Johnny let out a small breath. Murdoch and Val talking was never a good thing. He was quiet a moment, trying to recall if there was anything he had done – or hadn’t done – that he needed to worry about, but his brain wasn’t cooperating. “That mean I’m in trouble?” He frowned. “And that ain’t no rhetorical question.”
More page turning; and a single word answer. “Yes.” Scott continued to read.
There was a deep sigh from the young man on the couch. A second sigh followed the first; this one longer and more dramatic. It was the boy’s usual wordless plea when he was looking for sympathy from his elder brother. When there was no reaction from Scott, Johnny tried again. The sound this time was especially mournful; a whispered wail.
“It’s not going to work,” Scott announced, never looking up from the book that was balanced against his slim, well-muscled thighs. “At least, not this time. You deserved everything you got; and whatever is forthcoming from Murdoch when he gets home.” His voice lowered. “And you can rest assured our father is going to have a great deal to say after your rather serious breach of social decorum.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?” Johnny elbowed himself up into a near sitting position; cursing as the make-shift ice pack he had been using to ease the pain slipped down to land on his nearly naked chest. “Shit!” he muttered. He winced a bit from the cold, shivering as water from the melting ice dribbled down his sides. The sensation caused him to suck in his lean belly; the feeling of discomfort increasing as the water began to flow further south to disappear beneath his belt.
The cold wet seemed to flood his nether regions; and his reaction was to bolt upright. Gravity pulled the icy water even lower, and disgusted; he flung the ice-filled towel across the room, grimacing as it skipped across the tiled floor and flipped upward into the ash filled fireplace.
Scott was seated in Murdoch’s leather chair, right next to his brother’s head. “And now you’ve made Maria’s floor wet,” he admonished solemnly, “and managed to soil one of her pristine white towels.”
Johnny was in no mood to be scolded. “It’s got blood on it,” he groused, fingering the cheekbone beneath his right eye, “from my nose.” In spite of his cut lip, he managed a smile. “And she won’t fuss at me; she’ll just soak the towel and make it all white again with that bluin’ stuff.” He laughed, remembering the time he had added the ‘whitening’ agent to Scott’s bath water.
Scott knew exactly what his brother was thinking, and it made him a tad vindictive. “Not this time,” he sniped; and then added, “Pilar Ortíz.”
There was an audible gasp as Johnny’s smile disappeared. How the Hell was he supposed to know the little señorita from Morro Coyo was one Mamácita’s goddaughter’s, and not just the daughter of a friend? Shit. Shit, shit, shit! He limped over to the fireplace and retrieved the towel, dismayed when he saw that the now wet ash had turned to a tar-like paste. He flicked the melting chunks of ice into the firebox, and took a closer look at the thick toweling. Worried now, he tried to erase the smudge by briskly working the cloth between his fingers; grimacing when he realized all he’d done was make the stain even worse.
“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa had just entered the room, a small basin of chipped ice balanced against one hip. “Maria is going to kill you.” Reaching out, she plucked the dirty cloth from her brother’s fingers and held it out for inspection. It would be pointless to use it again to help soothe her brother’s head.
“Not if you wash it before she sees it,” Johnny said; hopeful. He put on his best puppy-dog face, reaching up to touch the growing bump beneath his right eye, which was now swollen completely shut. “C’mon, T’resa,” he cajoled.
She was already shaking her head. “Maria knows about Pilar,” she announced smugly, something ominous in her tone. “Trust me. She really is going to kill you.”
Scott laughed; aloud. “For the trespass and the towel,” he teased, making a slitting motion at his neck. “I wonder if she’ll kill you for her ahijada first, and then dig you up and kill you again for ruining her toweling.”
Johnny was not amused, and he didn’t appreciate that Teresa thought Scott was really funny and was laughing, too. “Jesus,” he muttered. “It’s not like I fu…. messed with her. Not like that.” And why the hell were they bringing it up now?
Teresa had dropped the soiled towel in the basin she was still holding and was absently swirling it in the now ice-cold water. “No,” she admonished, frowning when the ash stain didn’t budge. “You just spent as much time as you could around here when Maria was teaching Pilar how to cook; and then – every time you went into Morro Coyo – stopped by her house and pestered her into making you flan and dulcitas.” She canted her head. “She thought you were courting her, you know.”
“Wasn’t courtin’ her,” Johnny protested. “Just helpin’ her learn to be good at her trade.” He leaned forward a bit, his voice lowering as he shared a bit of fraternal wisdom. “It’s important for a man to have a woman who’s a good cook, ya know. You might want to remember that.”
“Oh, please…” Teresa chuffed. Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed her brother; who, when she has last seen him, was unconscious and slung over Scott’s shoulder. Johnny’s swollen right eye was an interesting shade of purple, there was a small cut at the corner of his mouth, his dark hair was tousled and his left ear was still dark red. His pants and shirt looked as though he had been dragged behind Barranca. “I’m not going to be able to mend that shirt, Johnny. Not this time.”
Scott, who had been very quiet while watching his siblings spar, paused in his reading to look up. “Perhaps he can get Molly Pritchard to mend it for him, Teresa,” he suggested, his eyes bright with mischief. “She did quite well with the embroidery on the shirt she stitched for Johnny while you were in Sacramento with Murdoch and Aggie…”
Teresa’s back stiffened. Eyes narrowing, she turned to face her dark-haired brother. “You were visiting Molly while I was in Sacramento?” she hissed. There was no jealousy in her tone; but it was clear she was not pleased. “You make excuses every time I ask you to take me into Green River to see her; but you can make the trip when I’m not home?” It didn’t help that she knew her friend had a secret crush on Johnny.
“Aw, c’mon, T’resa,” Johnny began, hoping to redeem himself. “That damned shirt looked like somethin’ the Old Ma… Murdoch would wear to a Cattle Growers Association meeting!” He brightened. “Molly got herself some dark red –” his brow furrowed “– I think she called it maroon – thread, and next thing I know she’s stitchin’ this…” he pulled at his tattered red shirt, using his thumb to tap at the elaborate butterfly embroidery “… on to the front of that white shirt and spiffin’ it right up!” This time when he smiled, the cut at the corner of his mouth really smarted. The pinch of pain made him cranky, and careless. “And you should be thankin’ me. I got her to mend some of my socks, too.”
Scott decided it was a good time to quit reading his book. Watching Johnny and Teresa was much more entertaining than reading The Illiad in Ionic Greek. “Ah, yes,” he interrupted. “The second most important thing a man needs in a loving bride. A woman who sews and mends. You should keep that in mind, too, Teresa.”
If looks could have killed, two people in the room would have been dead. Scott for his unwanted observations; and Johnny, who was already beginning to wither under Teresa’s harsh glare. A tense silence followed, broken by the swish of Teresa’s skirt as she pirouetted and flounced out of the room. “Men!” she muttered under her breath.
Johnny stared after the girl. “Don’t know what the hell she’s so pissed about. I got Molly to do the shirt, darn my socks and mend a couple’a pair of pants.” He shook his head and turned to look at his brother. “She should be thankin’ me for all the work I saved her.”
Scott’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. It took him a moment to compose himself and to grasp his brother’s convoluted logic. “Let me get this straight,” he started. “Pilar should consider herself fortunate to be allowed to cook for you, Molly should be grateful you convinced her to do your mending, and Teresa should be completely beholden to you for sweet-talking her best friend.”
“Pretty much,” Johnny grinned, pleased with himself. The smile quickly faded when the cut at the corner of his mouth re-opened and a bubble of blood appeared. He wiped it way with the back of his right hand. “Damn, that smarts!” he cursed; withdrawing his fist to now stare at his right thumb. It was beginning to discolor, and he could swear he could see the dark flesh throbbing beneath the nail. He held it up for his brother’s inspection. “How the hell…?” His knuckles were all scraped, too.
The book Scott had been reading was now closed; resting upright on his right thigh, his fingers drumming against the gilt-edged pages. “That would be from when Sally O’Hara stomped on your hand,” he announced.
Johnny’s expression morphed from mild self concern to genuine surprise. “Sally wouldn’t do anything like that,” he scoffed. The young woman – a sweet slip of a thing not a year out of a convent school and still thinking about becoming a nun – had recently returned to her family in Spanish Wells, and Johnny had taken her to her first social. “She’s a sweet kid. Knows how to make me laugh, and she isn’t like some of those other ‘good’ girls who lie through their teeth when they’re leadin’ you on.” He snorted. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, brother.” He shook his head. “Nah, she wouldn’t a done this.” He held up his hand a second time; higher than before, and was aware of a new pain in his shoulder. Jesus! His whole body was beginning to ache; and it didn’t help that he had no idea why...
“Yet another fine attribute for a proper young woman,” Scott smiled. “Someone who makes you laugh and doesn’t lie.” He looked up at his brother, the smile growing as he watched his sibling fidget. Johnny was doing an inventory; his brow furrowing as he checked out the variety of rips and tears in his shirt and pants, which had a big slit at one knee. There was also a profusion of bumps, bruises and abrasions on his exposed flesh. So great was the boy’s concentration, when the Grandfather clock began to toll the hour, he actually flinched.
Johnny turned his head to scowl at the clock, immediately regretting the move as a sharp pain penetrated the base of his skull and hammered its way into this brain. How the fuck could it be 4:00?
Aware that his brother was watching him, Johnny slowly – very slowly – turned his head. His mind was busy and even thinking hurt. The fact that a profusion of distorted images were tumbling about in his head only added to his confusion. Hell, the last time he’d been this mixed-up was after one of the horses he was working with sunfished and dumped him into the dirt. “It was that damned roan, wasn’t it? The son-of-bitch!” He looked down at his torn britches. “Played all broke, and then bucked me into the fence?” he asked.
Scott’s right eyebrow arched as he debated his answer. “No…” he replied, drawing the word out. “Johnny, just what do you remember about today?” He rose up from the chair and went immediately to the drink table, rummaging among the bottles until he found the decanter of tequila. Pouring a half measure, he handed the drink off to his brother.
Johnny took the glass, downed the meager shot, and held it out in hopes of a refill. After a moment of hesitation, Scott acquiesced and filled it to the brim.
Impatient, Scott repeated his words. “I asked you a question, Johnny. Do you have any memory at all of what happened today?”
The bite of the potent liquor brought with it a sharpening of the senses as Johnny sipped rather than chugged the drink. Bits and pieces of his most recent past began to kaleidoscope through his head; small vignettes that, for some reason, reminded him of the raunchy flip book Scott had showed him in a specialty shop in San Francisco. But instead of the jerky movements of sepia-toned can-can dancers, the images that plagued him…
“Johnny?” Scott reached out, laying his right hand on his brother’s shoulder and giving it a gentle shake.
The shake was enough to prompt another memory. His one good eye narrowed. “I remember you wakin’ me up at the ass-crack of dawn, tellin’ me we had to go in to Green River to pick up the Old Man and T’resa,” he snapped. More images unfolded. “And you hollerin’ at me to quit dawdlin’ when you were draggin’ me out of Baldemero’s.” He reached up to finger comb his hair, wincing when he felt a knot just above his left ear; sucking in a lungful of air at the new source of pain. “I remember crossin’ the street…” gingerly, he rubbed at the lump on his head, “…and I remember steppin’ up onto the boardwalk in front of Widow Hargis’ store just when the train was comin’ into the station.” The pout appeared then; along with an accusatory glare. “You tripped me!”
“I did not trip you,” Scott declared. “I did, however, pick you up. And bring you home.” He bit his lip in a valiant effort to stop the smile. Just as quickly, he sobered. “You don’t recall seeing Pilar, Molly and Sally coming out of the widow’s store?” The Widow herself had been herding them before her, with Hortense Hargis bringing up the rear. “The three young women you’ve been seeing?”
Johnny’s cheeks flushed as the memories came flooding back. He’d felt like a newly hatched chick being attacked by cannibalistic hens. And he was pretty sure that one of those biddies had been carrying a cane. “Four,” he murmured, the word slipping out.
Johnny held up his hand; the one with the damaged thumb in hopes of generating sympathy and displaying the proper number of digits. “Four girls I been seein’.”
Scott shook his head in disbelief; not for the first time wondering how his younger brother had survived so long. He began ticking off names. “Pilar, the cook,” he began, “Molly, the mender,” he sucked in a breath, “Sally, the girl who makes you laugh; and…”
“Hor-tense,” Johnny volunteered, purposely dragging out the name. The corner of his mouth quirked up in a mischievous grin.
There was a sudden sssss as Scott sucked in a deep breath. An old joke he had shared with friends at Harvard came back to haunt him: the one about how – when a man found four women who each met one of his basic needs – it was very important those women not know each other, or ever meet. “Tell me you did not sleep with Hortense Hargis,” he whispered.
Johnny perked right up. “I didn’t sleep with Hortense,” he declared, still grinning; proud of himself for not lying.
“Stop that,” Scott ordered, not missing the emphasis on the first syllable of the young woman’s name. “Did you have relations with her?”
That smile again. “Nah, I don’t think we’re related,” Johnny scoffed. He gave a little shrug. “Unless the Old Man had a catch colt we don’t know about.” He leaned in a bit. “Old Hortense is a pretty long drink of water, if you know what I mean.”
Scott was tiring of the game. “Widow Hargis’s niece,” he growled. “The one who sings in the choir and teaches the youth Bible class on Sunday morning?”
“She might teach Bible class on Sunday, brother, but that sure in Hell isn’t what she’s teachin’ on Saturday night!” Johnny laughed, pleased at his own joke.
The French doors were open, and the distant sound of a galloping horse cut into the late afternoon quiet. As the horse drew closer, there was no sign the animal was being slowed down; a good indication whoever it was, was a stranger. No one ran their horse once they passed under the arch. Not on Murdoch Lancer’s ranch.
“Johnny,” Scott began, the words coming with an intensity that made it clear he was in no mood to play, “you do realize that Murdoch remained in town to try and assuage the hurt feelings of those young ladies…” he swallowed, “…and he will now also have to deal with the Widow. Without any prior knowledge that you’ve been...”
“Diddling Hortense?” Johnny snickered. He spoke a little louder as the horse and rider thundered into the yard.
Johnny’s back was to the French doors; but Scott had a full view of the courtyard. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, his eyes going wide in disbelief. “It’s Murdoch!”
The sound of the front door opening and the crashing of the heavy oak against the plastered wall tore into the quiet with the explosive report of a large-bore rifle; followed by an ominous silence, broken by the faint dribble of fractured adobe trickling onto the tiled atrium floor. And then, just a single word: like the voice of God. “JOHN!!”