Disclaimer: It’s the f****** New Year. I’m grouchy, Fox better not mess with me, and I don’t give a damned about anyone’s resolutions.
They were sitting at the table in the kitchen; Murdoch with his usual newspaper in his hand, Scott concentrating on a letter bearing a Boston post mark. Johnny was playing with his food.
The youngest Lancer was not in a good mood. Teresa had left the night before to spend some time with a neighbor who had just given birth: the third child in as many years. And Maria -- the love of his life when it came to food -- had been whisked away by Jelly to Green River early this very morning. The cook was taking -- he couldn’t believe it -- a day off! Something his stomach never did. Not since he’d come home, anyway.
Using his fork, he poked at his plate. His father had ‘done the honors’, cooking breakfast. What the Hell kind of breakfast is two eggs sunny side up, fried potatoes, and sausage that looks like baby fingers? Johnny thought. No salsa on the table, not one fuckin’ hint of peppers in the meat, and the coffee tasted like shit!
“What the fuck is this supposed to be?” he groused. He poked one of the eggs, his stomach churning as the yolk flooded across the china into his potatoes.
Murdoch looked up from his paper, frowning at his youngest son over the top of his glasses. “Breakfast,” he answered. “And I believe I spoke to you last night about your language, John. You’re not so old that I can’t wash that mouth out with soap, you know.”
Scott snickered. He looked up, his face flushing a bit. “Grandfather wrote something very funny,” he fibbed, holding up the letter.
“Like that has a chance in fuckin’ hell of happenin’,” Johnny snorted. “If it’s so damned funny, why don’t you read it to us?” he challenged.
“Private joke,” Scott responded. He refolded the letter and immediately stuck it into his pocket.
“Bet your ass it isn’t!” Johnny shot back.
More paper rattling from the head of the table. Murdoch was folding the paper now, not a good sign. He placed the newspaper on the table to the left of his plate. “John,” he began.
Johnny’s eyes closed and just as quickly opened. “Yeah?” He was studiously avoiding looking at his father, choosing instead to continue staring at his eggs.
Murdoch reached into his pocket and withdrew a small tablet and a pencil. He opened the little booklet, wet the tip of the pencil with his tongue and began to write. “That’s one dollar, fifty cents,” he said.
Scott had just taken a long drink of his coffee. The cup was still near his mouth when he spoke. “A dollar fifty?” he asked.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair. He was tapping the pencil against the table. “I’ve decided,” he intoned, “I’m going to assess a fine every time your brother curses. Twenty-five cents for each swear word I hear him use.” His right eyebrow lifting slightly, he raised the pencil and waved it in the general direction of his eldest. “I want you to do the same, Scott.”
Johnny lifted his head to look at his father. The man looked fuckin’ serious, he thought. He decided to test his theory. “That’s the dumbest fuckin’ thing I ever heard!”
Scott’s hand shot out, and without so much as an excuse me, he grabbed the pencil from his father’s hand, took the envelope out of his pocket and inscribed something across the back. Grinning, he handed the pencil back to his father.
Murdoch cleared his throat, and peering over the top of his glasses, made his own notation in his little book. Scratch, scratch, dot.
The youngest Lancer’s eyes were busy; swinging first to his brother, then back to his sire. “Wait a minute,” he started. “You wrote somethin’,” he jabbed an accusing finger at his father, and swung the same digit to point to his brother, “and so did you.”
Murdoch nodded. Straight-faced, he said, “We both heard it.”
“Fifty cents, brother,” Scott laughed. He took a bite of his potatoes. Waving his fork at his sibling, he continued. “That’s two dollars so far, and we haven’t even gone to work yet!” Johnny on the job was a veritable thesaurus when it came to using swear words, and in two languages. The blond turned to his father, his expression as serious as the older man’s. “You know, sir, I’m not as fluent in Spanish as I’d like to be. I may be at a disadvantage when we’re out working somewhere, and my little brother is tempted to trot out his entire repertoire of vulgarities.”
Johnny gave his elder brother the look. “Kiss my ass, big brother,” he instructed, his voice whisper soft.
In a flash, Murdoch made another entry in his notebook. Without being asked, he handed the pencil off to his elder son, who proved to be just as enthusiastic in his posting. “I’ll ask Cip to ride out with you,” he announced. It was getting harder for the older man to keep a straight face, but he prevailed. “In fact,” he continued, “I’ll give Cip a notebook, too.”
His breakfast uneaten, Johnny shoved back his chair. He was visibly fighting the urge to voice a comeback; chewing on the inside of his lower lip to stop the words. He stalked out of the kitchen, spurs jangling loudly as he stomped into the hallway; pausing just long enough to grab his hat and jam it well down over his ears. Behind him, he could hear the laughter of his father and his brother. He made a point of slamming the front door as he escaped into the yard.
Johnny was knee deep in mud; his arms wrapped around a week-old heifer. The calf was fighting him; its Mama was to his right making all kinds of noisy threats, and Scott…
Scott was up above him on a ledge overlooking the creek. He was laughing.
“What the fuck’s so goddamned funny!?” Johnny tugged at the calf, knowing the frustration of having the animal wipe its snot-filled snout across his right shoulder. “You could get your fuckin’ ass down here and help, you know!”
The blond stayed right where he was. In fact, he was taking something out of his shirt pocket. “Can’t,” he said. “I’m busy.” With that, the elder brother began ciphering, counting to four with his fingers before recording something in his little note pad.
Johnny had reached him limit. Straining as hard as he could, he pulled the calf free, set it on dry ground; and then, for good measure, kicked its ass to give it a good start towards the bellowing cow. He charged up the side of the creek bed; intent on killing his brother.
Reaching up to grab Scott’s left leg and belt, he pulled his brother off the horse and began pummeling him. “You take that fuckin’ book out again, Scott, I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass from here to Green River!” he roared.
And then he heard the voice; from above and behind. “I believe,” Cipriano smiled, taking out his own pad of paper and the nub of a penny pencil, “that would be seventy-five cents,” his brow furrowed as both eyebrows raised, “doubled, if your brother heard you, too.”
Scott felt his brother wilt above him and rolled free. He stood up, brushing off the flakes of mud at his belly and pulling the damp shirt away from his chest; “Oh, I heard,” he declared. He stared up at the segundo, a wide smile coming as he continued. “I only wish you had been here sooner…”
They were in the Great Room, both young men sitting on the couch and hunkered over the chess board. Scott made his move, declaring “Check mate.”
Johnny stared at the board. “What the hell!?”
Scratch, scratch, dot. Murdoch was sitting in his chair; his feet up on the ottoman. He put down the pad.
Annoyed, the younger man looked up; dark curls falling across his forehead. “Hell ain’t a swear word,” he declared. “Scott,” he nodded at his brother, “said it’s a…” his brow furrowed, “…a ‘geographical location!’”
“That would be what in Hell,” Scott reasoned. “‘In Hell would be a geographical location, whereas ‘what the hell’ qualifies as a curse.” Ever the big brother, and wanting to help, he decided to expand his explanation. “It’s -- pardon me, sir ,” he nodded at his father, returning the wink, “…like when you use the word ass. When you are comparing someone to the animal, it’s certainly an insult, but not a curse. However, when you accuse someone of being a pain in the ass,” he pointed to his own posterior in order to clarify what he was saying, “then you a guilty of using an obscenity.”
Johnny stared hard at his brother. “You learn all that shit…” the word was out before he realized it, and -- once again -- he heard the annoying drag of a pencil across paper, “…at Harvard?” Then, realizing the source of the noise was neither his father nor his brother, he turned around.
Teresa was standing behind him; notebook in hand, diligently recording her entry.
Standing up, Johnny went directly to the fireplace. Gripping the mantle with both hands, he beat his head against the piece of oak; three times before the headache came. “Damnit, damnit, damnit…” he breathed. This time, three pencils scraped across three pads; scratch, scratch, dot.
It was payday. The two brothers stood before their father’s desk, patiently waiting as the big Scot dug into his drawer for their pay envelopes. Unlike the other hands, the Lancer boys were paid directly by their Old Man. For the most part, it wasn’t so bad. Other times, payday came with a lecture. Johnny had a feeling this was going to be one of the other times.
Murdoch pulled out the two envelopes. Always thrifty, he expected them to take the money and return the small pouches so that they could be used again. “Scott,” he said, handing off the first packet. The blond reached out, opened the envelope, and withdrew the cash. He never counted it. Grinning, he tucked the bills into his shirt pocket. “Thank you, sir,” he said.
There was an awkward pause. Johnny stood before the desk, his hands behind his back; nervously twiddling his thumbs. Payday had fallen on a Saturday night and he was anxious to get into town. He was also unusually quiet.
“Johnny,” Murdoch held out his son’s pay envelope; smiling a bit as the young man’s hand shot out. He canted his head, holding on to the missive a bit. “First, son, I want to tell you how impressed I am with your efforts to stop cursing.”
Johnny nodded. In the last week he had deduced that his best chance to keep his tongue from slipping was to simply remain silent. He was holding on to the envelope; wondering why the Old Man wasn’t letting go.
“Secondly,” his father continued, “I expect those efforts to continue. No matter what.”
A second nod from the second son. Carefully, Johnny lifted the flap on the envelope. Once, when he had first come home, he had actually made the mistake of tearing the paper container.
He stared into the packet. It appeared that his father had forgotten something. Like money, he thought. Opening the envelope a bit wider and tipping it up, he watched as a piece of paper -- neatly folded -- drifted gently like a fallen leaf to the floor.
Bending down, he picked the piece of paper up. He rose up again, flicking the sheet open with his thumb and began to read. “What’s this?” he asked, holding the paper up in front of his father.
“It’s a bill,” the big man answered. He smiled as Scott began backing out of the room.
“For what?” the younger man asked; truly confused.
“Well,” his father replied, “I’ve tallied up the records,” his hand disappeared into his desk drawer only to reappear again with four identical notebooks, “and it appears you owe me money; as opposed to me owing you. Twelve dollars and seventy-five cents, to be exact.”
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered, his cheeks coloring. Payday usually netted him twenty-five dollars, unless he’d had an advance. And he hadn’t. “Wait a minute…” He did some quick mental ciphering. If he owed the Old Man twelve dollars and seventy five cents, and he wasn’t getting his regular pay, then it meant he had spouted off some thirty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents worth of cuss words!!
“Consider it a learning experience, son,” Murdoch declared, getting up from his chair. He came around the desk and laid a firm hand on his son’s shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. “We’ll just refer to it as the wages of sin,” he joshed.
Johnny felt his cheeks flushing an even deeper shade of red. Thirty seven dollars and seventy-five cents at twenty-five cents per cuss word came to 151 times he’d turned the air blue. Then, in an attempt to ease his conscience, he reminded himself some of those times represented occasions when more than one person had heard him swearing. He looked up at his father. “How long you gonna keep on countin’?” he asked.
“For as long as it takes,” the older man answered.
Johnny shook his head. He placed his now empty pay envelope back on the desk. No money; he owed the Old Man -- so no chance of an advance -- and it was Saturday night.
Inspired, he turned around looking for his brother; relieved to see Scott standing by the open door talking to Teresa. “Hey, brother!” he called. “Can you spare a dime?”
Scott turned to look at him. “I don’t know, little brother,” he took the cash from his pocket, waving it in the air. “It’s going to cost you…”
Johnny was already at his brother’s side. Murdoch watched as his younger son looped a friendly arm over his elder brother’s shoulder; recognizing the beginning of a con. “C’mon, Scott. What’s a fu…” he stopped himself, “…few bucks between brothers.”
They were already headed out the door, Scott’s deep baritone coming as he scolded his sibling. “That’s worth twelve and a half cents, little brother. I heard exactly what you were about to say, and if you think I’m letting it go…”
“Aw, c’mon, Scott. I’m doin’ better! And I will be gettin’ paid next month…”
Murdoch followed his sons into the hallway, and then onto the porch, watching as they headed towards the barn. The banter was getting livelier.
“I’m still going to be recording your transgressions,” Scott warned as he strode ahead of his brother.
Johnny laughed. “Gonna kinda be hard to do when I bust your arm,” he threatened. There a sound as both young men began scuffling in front of the watering trough; and then a sudden splash.
“God damn it, Johnny,” Scott roared. “This was a clean shirt. I’m going to kick your sorry ass all the way into Green River!”
“Whoee!” the younger man crowed. “Fifty cents!” Johnny poked his head out from the barn door, waving and shouting to his father. “You hear that, Pa!? Scott was cussin’!” He disappeared again. “I’m writin’ that down, Scott!”
The big Scot turned on his heel and headed back into the house. He had hoped that Scott’s good influence on Johnny would extend to the use of foul language, but now he wasn’t so sure. Unable to stop himself, he laughed. Maybe a bar of soap wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.