Warning: If you don’t like swearing, or you find certain boy type behavior offensive, you should probably stop right here. This is another 667 production (evil and then some).
Disclaimer: We know this is going to raise hackles, but -- although we’ve fallen into the trap on occasion -- We can’t do this Barranca as a stallion bit anymore. Just can’t. The reality is stallions do not function well as working cowponies or for that matter as horses ridden for pleasure. And if you’ve ever been around a mare in season and a stallion that’s had even a small whiff of a filly coming in first heat, you know it to be true. So, remember, we’re not killing off a major character or anything, just nipping some trouble in the bud. (Pun intended.)
Re: The castrati. Believe it or not, still happening; for the sake of art. (Ouch.) Funny the things you can find out on the internet. Funnier still -- as in weird -- there’s even a Yahoo site.
A little liberty taken here and there; mostly there.
The Unkindest Cut of All…
Murdoch Lancer watched in horror as the scene in the steep canyon below him unfolded; powerless to stop what was happening. For the third time in as many weeks, Barranca was responding to instinct and not Johnny’s touch; the big palomino thundering across the canyon floor.
Scott reined in beside his father, his lips compressing in a grim line as he watched his brother’s stallion drop into a full run. “A hackamore,” he breathed, the normal tight control slipping and anger fully apparent in his tone. “He’s using that damned hackamore again.” With no bit, Johnny’s control over the palomino was marginal.
The bay gelding Murdoch was riding was dancing in place; fighting the mouthpiece, eager to be part of the chase. The tall man rebuked the horse, and then touched his heels to the animal’s flanks. Knowing his elder son was behind him, he guided his mount at an angle down the steep incline.
Barranca was pursuing a sorrel filly. Mindless of the rider on its back, the palomino was intent on the chase. Neck stretched out, its head only inches above the ground, the horse slithered through the chest high grass in its courtship dance. Ears flat and teeth bared, the stallion was steadily gaining ground. The love bites -- the nips aimed at the filly’s hind quarters -- were growing in intensity as the stud herded the mare towards a small copse of trees.
There was a sound as Scott suddenly inhaled; and then the noise of metal against leather as he pulled his rifle from its boot. He saw Johnny kick his right foot free from the stirrup; watching as his brother bent low over Barranca’s neck. The boy’s hat flew off from the force of the wind, the storm strings taut against the young man’s neck; but Johnny did nothing to retrieve the Stetson. He was too busy trying to keep his seat; his slim thighs and calves molding to Barranca’s heaving sides as he used his shoulders and both hands to apply pressure to the reins connected to plaited rawhide bosal in an attempt to regain control.
Scott levered a shell into the rifle; urging his own horse forward and past his father. He heard Murdoch calling out to him but did not reply; his eyes focused fully on Johnny and the two horses. Barranca had maneuvered the flaxen-tailed filly into a narrow channel between twin outcroppings of rock, moving up beside the sorrel to intensify his attacks. Gravel, shale and grass torn loose by the thunderous pounding of shod and unshod hooves rose up like dust devils from the canyon floor as the two animals wove in and out among the scrub and the wind-eroded pillars; the horses being funneled into a boulder strewn clearing.
Working hard to catch up, Scott cursed as he saw Johnny shift in the saddle and cant to the left. Barranca had swerved sharply as the filly kicked up her heels and galloped head long into a yet another narrow channel of rock barely wide enough for the two animals. Only Johnny’s quick move kept his right leg from being battered and shredded by the rock outcroppings.
Murdoch’s dark gelding was bulling its way through the remnants of the small herd of mares and yearlings that were now stampeding towards the flats being driven by the wild black stallion that was trying desperately to collect its harem. He watched as Scott knotted Cheval’s reins around the saddle horn; stared hard at his elder son’s back as the blond, with no regard for his own safety, lifted the rifle to his shoulders.
Barranca was attempting to mount the filly. The young horse, however, had decided now to act coy. Flicking her tail as nature betrayed her; she kicked out at Barranca’s head with her hind feet, nothing playful in the mood. Her fractious nature did nothing to cool the palomino’s ardor; if anything, his attempts to subdue her increased.
Moving in closer beside the filly, Barranca’s head snaked along the side of her neck; teeth bared as he drove his unwilling bride deeper into the small canyon. The grunts and squeals of both horses intensified; echoing off the steep shale cliffs.
Scott could hear Johnny yelling at the big palomino. The blond was riding by pure instinct now, gripping his animal’s sides with his long legs, as one with his horse as a Comanche warrior; still clutching the rifle at the ready. Swearing profusely over the lack of a clear shot, he watched as the filly connected with another kick to Barranca’s head and shoulders. The stallion once again swerved violently to the left.
The elder Lancer son watched as the sorrel’s left hind hoof connected with Johnny’s right arm and saw his brother go limp. Barranca’s response to the filly’s renewed attack was to rear straight up in the air; front hooves pawing at the sky, head tossed back.
His nose spewing blood, Johnny tumbled backwards over the cantle. It appeared for a long agonizing moment his left foot had hung up in the stirrup. Using one hand, Scott pulled Cheval to an abrupt stop and then again lifted his rifle to cradle the walnut stock against his cheek a second time. Before he could pull the trigger, Johnny -- arms akimbo and as limp as a rag doll -- crashed to the earth.
Scott fired the rifle; the barrel pointed skyward as he discharged the weapon three times in rapid succession, the usual distress signal when they were out on the range. Then, kicking his mount into a full gallop, he careened down the hill. He dismounted on the run, stumbling once before righting himself and dropping to his knees as he slid into place where his unconscious brother was laying. Breathless, his hand hovered above the boy’s still form as he debated what he should attend to first, the bloodied face or the obviously dislocated right shoulder.
He didn’t know where to begin.
Murdoch pulled the big, white-faced gelding to a rough halt; his mouth tight in a grim line as daggers of pain shot from his hip to the small of his back, his right leg momentarily going numb. Grimacing against the pain, he grabbed his canteen and swung down. “How bad?”
Scott took the proffered canvas covered flask. Using the thumb of his right hand, he manipulated the stopper. Taking a handkerchief from his back pocket, he dampened the cloth. “The shoulder’s dislocated,” he muttered. “Again.”
The older man dropped to one knee, reaching out to gently caress his younger son’s face. He took the kerchief from his elder son and gently swabbed the blood away. Gingerly, he lifted Johnny’s bruised upper lip, relieved to see his son’s front teeth were still intact. “He’s going to need stitches.”
Scott had relaxed slightly and was leaning back, his buttocks almost touching his spurred heels. He looked up as he heard Cipriano’s sons -- Mateo and Paco -- approach. He called out to the two men. “We’ll need a pair of saplings,” he shouted. “Seven feet long or so; stripped down to the bark. And your slickers,” he added.
Murdoch’s brow furrowed. “Son?”
The blond stood up, brushing himself off. “We’re going to rig a sling stretcher.” He cast a long gaze at his father’s gelding. “Your horse,” he declared. “And Mateo’s.” He nodded at the dun gelding that was ground-hitched and contentedly munching at the long grass. In the background he could hear the chopping sounds as the two men carried on with their assigned task. “We’ll arrange the litter between the two animals; carry Johnny back to the hacienda.” Catching the look on his father’s face, he continued; making no effort to hide his growing aggravation. “We used the same technique in the field many times; sir; when we couldn’t wait, or the terrain was too rough for the ambulances.” Or the dead too numerous and blocking the roadways. “It’s better than sending for a wagon.”
Murdoch was carefully maneuvering Johnny’s right arm into position against the boy’s ribs. “I wasn’t doubting you, Scott,” he said, the words coming softly. His own frustration was bubbling to the surface. Reaching down, he unbuckled his belt and pulled it from his waist. “I should have brought more men with us.”
Gently, Scott reached out with both hands and lifted Johnny’s shoulders as their father used the belt to secure the younger man’s arm to his side. “There were five of us, sir; for less than thirty mares and an inexperienced stallion that just gained a harem.” He eased Johnny back down onto the ground. “We had more than enough men.” He ground out the next words, his gaze firmly locked on his brother’s face. “My mistake was in assuming Barranca wouldn’t be a problem.”
Father and son watched as Mateo and Paco headed towards them. The two young men were carrying twin lengths of pine braced against their shoulders; their heads slightly canted. Scott rose up to greet them, nodding his approval.
Together, the three younger men began constructing the litter. Stroking his still unconscious younger son’s forehead, Murdoch watched in quiet appreciation as Scott, Mateo and Paco worked as a well-oiled team; as if it was something they had been doing all of their lives. It caused the older man a deep pang of regret: both of his sons had been denied far too long the existence of the extended family Lancer represented. He closed his eyes against the thought.
Scott and Mateo were working the sleeves of the first canvas slicker onto the branchless lengths of raw timber. They repeated the process with the second piece of rain gear, turning both coats inside out to form a compact sling. Mateo returned to his horse just long enough to retrieve his bedroll and several lengths of rawhide tie-downs from his saddle bags.
Finally satisfied with their efforts, Scott stood up. “We’ll rig it in place before we load Johnny,” he said.
Without being told, Mateo went to collect his gelding and Murdoch’s horse. He led them back to where Scott was standing, pulling his own reata free and handing the lariat off. “How do you want the horses?”
It took only a moment for Scott to decide. “We’ll hang the litter off the left-hand side of my father’s horse.” He turned to his father. “You should mount before we secure the stretcher, sir.”
Murdoch levered himself to his feet; brushing himself off. A small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth as he realized just how organized -- how efficient -- his elder son could be. In the space of less than a heartbeat, Scott had taken into consideration his game hip, Johnny’s need for immediate attention, and concern for the older gelding. “All right,” he nodded.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The trip back to the hacienda was slow and, at times, torturous. It didn’t help that Barranca, his carnal needs sated, was now trailing after his stable mates. The palomino’s saddle was half-on, half-off at a precarious angle. Twice the stallion approached Cheval, coming close enough to nip at the gelding’s left shoulder.
Vindictively, Scott slapped at Barranca’s nose with the loose ends of his reins. He was riding forward of the two horses bearing the canvas sling. There were just the three of them now; Paco having been sent ahead to fetch Doc Jenkins. Touching his heels to Cheval’s flanks, Scott drove Barranca ahead of him for a good twenty yards, giving the stallion a final not-so-gentle boot in the hind end as he shooed him off for the final time.
Content the palomino was heading for the barn; Scott eased up and dropped back until he was riding even with his father, just to the man’s right. He rose up in the stirrups to take a quick look at Johnny.
Murdoch cast a quick look at his younger son; at the gently swaying sling. Johnny looked as if he was comfortable and simply being rocked to sleep. “He’s still out,” he said, feeling a bit foolish when he realized he was whispering.
Scott wasn’t too sure about that; if Johnny was indeed unconscious. His younger brother had become quite adept at feigning sleep, especially if he thought being awake and aware was to his disadvantage. It was a great way of avoiding the old man’s wrath when he was in trouble. “I don’t know how he has survived this long, Murdoch.” He shook his head. “If we had a dollar for every time he’s been tossed from a horse, we could…”
“Just about break even for the all mischief he’s managed to get into since he’s been home?” Murdoch interrupted.
Unable to help himself, Scott laughed. He quickly sobered. “We’re going to have to do something about cutting down the risk.”
Murdoch shifted in the saddle; relieved it was his left leg that was resting over one side of the canvas stretcher’s poles, and not his right. “You were going to shoot that filly,” he reasoned, nodding at his son’s rifle.
Scott shook his head. “No, sir,” he replied. Momentarily avoiding his father’s eyes, he stared straight ahead for a long moment. “When it appeared Johnny’s foot was hung up in the stirrup, I was going to shoot Barranca.”
Stunned, Murdoch reached out to touch his son’s arm. “If that had happened, Scott, he would have never forgiven you,” he admonished.
The blond’s jaws tensed and then relaxed. “And I could have lived with that,” he countered. He turned, meeting his father’s gaze. “It wouldn’t have been much of a choice, Murdoch. My brother or his horse.” With that, he touched his heels to Cheval’s flanks, and moved ahead.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Teresa couldn’t stand it any longer. She stood on the front portico, looking first to the road leading from town, and then -- as she heard the hoof beats of a shod horse -- west to canyon country. She knew Johnny had been hurt, the realization sinking in as she saw Barranca and the saddle that was more off than on; but Paco had been sketchy about what he had shared. Cip’s younger son had ridden in, exchanged a quick few words with his father, and then had ridden out again on a fresh mount.
Shading her eyes, Teresa stepped out into the yard, rising a bit on her tip-toes as she spied three horses approaching from the west at a walk. She’d never seen anything quite like what she was seeing now; but it was evident from the way the horses were moving two of them were carrying a shared burden.
Her attention was pulled away from the trio of horsemen when Frank hurried into the yard to collect Barranca. The palomino was full of its usual piss and vinegar, giving the cowhand a fit before finally calming down and allowing itself to be led into the barn. And then Scott pulled up to the hitching rail.
“No fussing, Teresa,” Scott said as he swung down. “Barranca threw him and there’s no point in speculating how badly he’s been hurt until Sam’s examined him.” He patted the girl’s arm and nodded towards the front door. “We need to get him upstairs.”
Cipriano was crossing the courtyard. It didn’t take him long to assess the situation. At once, he moved into position, joining Scott at the head of the stretcher. Murdoch and Mateo dismounted, and in a matter of moments, the litter was untied and being transported into the house.
Sam Jenkins’ Morgan trotted beneath the arch just as the four men disappeared behind the front door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Sam was shaking his head. He stared down at the young man on the bed, took off his glasses, and cleared his throat. “The shoulder is definitely dislocated,” he frowned, “again. I’m going to have to stitch that cut at the corner of his mouth, and he’s going to have not one, but two,” he held up the fingers of his right hand in a V, “black eyes.” He turned to gaze at Murdoch. “He’s lucky his nose wasn’t broken.” He reached out and gingerly flexed the cartilage just to be sure.
Murdoch’s hand was hovering above Johnny’s forehead. “Barranca tossed his head back; knocked him completely out of the saddle.”
Frowning, the physician was digging into his satchel in search of his suturing supplies. “You’d think after that little event in town the other day…”
Scott was standing behind Murdoch. He stifled a cough in a blatant attempt to catch the doctor’s attention, at the same time making a slashing motion at his throat with his left forefinger; but it was too late.
Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched. “What ‘little event’?” he asked, an ominous quiet following the seemingly simple question.
Sam peered over the top of his glasses at his old friend before glancing across the broad shoulders to exchange a brief look with Scott. It was obvious from the blond’s face neither he nor his younger brother had discussed what had occurred in Green River with their father. He blew out a breath and decided to take the coward’s way out. After all -- thank God -- these weren’t his children. “I’m sure Scott can explain things better than I,” he answered.
Scott’s pale eyes closed briefly, and when he opened them he was looking directly into his father’s orbs, which were now a slate grey. “Johnny and I had a small problem when we were in Green River picking up supplies,” he began. Avoiding his father’s harsh glare, he looked down at his brother’s face and realized Johnny was more aware than he was letting on; could see it in the sudden flinching that occurred as Sam began cleaning the boy’s cut lip.
“What ‘small problem’?” Murdoch seethed.
As if on cue, Johnny moaned. It was enough to divert the elder Lancer’s attention. He turned back to his younger son. “Johnny?”
The youth’s countenance was a study in pain. Murdoch watched as Johnny’s tongue flicked against the tear at the corner of his mouth and then disappeared. The boy’s eyes were still screwed shut, as if the muted light within the room was hurting him. Reaching out, he placed a tender hand on his son’s forehead.
“Pa?” The single word came as a mere whisper.
Scott had to turn his head to keep from laughing. He wondered just how long Johnny had been conscious; how much he’d heard.
Responding to the endearment, Murdoch leaned in. “Sam’s here,” he said gently.
Johnny turned his head, one eye cocking open. “Sam?” Feebly, the boy tried to raise his head and looked warily around the room. He stretched out a quaking hand and called out for his brother, eyes narrowing as he stared into the haze. “Boston.” Silence. “You here, Boston?’ he whispered.
Scott moved in front of his father, squatting down to take his baby brother’s hand, patting it lightly. “I’m here, Johnny,” he answered, his voice filled with the proper amount of concern. “Right here.”
Johnny looked around the room as if searching for something, confusion marring his features. “Don’t ‘member,” he croaked; a blatant lie, but reasonably well told. The petulant frown came then as he raised his hand and waggled a finger at his elder sibling. As if it hurt to talk, he faked a hoarse whisper. “It was one of them cows, wasn’t it, brother?” It was a rhetorical question and he didn’t wait for the answer; his tone suddenly accusatory. “One of the Old Man’s damned cows that run me down and kicked the shit out of me.” The pout deepened, and he opened his mouth to continue the fairy tale. “That ol’ Mexican longhorn he won’t turn loose of…”
Sam used the opportunity to slip a generous spoon full of laudanum into the youth’s open mouth. It didn’t take long for the boy to slip off. The physician waved Scott away, not missing the look of relief that washed across the blond’s face.
They were quite a pair, Sam thought; the Boston dilettante and his delinquent younger brother. And they certainly knew how to work their father.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Once Johnny had been attended to and was completely tucked in, Sam had been hustled off to the kitchen by Maria; her usual reward for the physician after having taken care of her bebé chico. The aroma of freshly ground and brewed coffee was wafting through the entire house, enhanced by the cinnamon and raisin smell of dulcitas. The fragrance seemed to tease even the honey bees beyond the open windows of the Great Room.
Murdoch accepted the glass from his son; standing for a time staring into the amber glow of his beloved Glenlivet, swirling the glass a bit before finally speaking. “I want to know what happened in Green River.”
Surprised, Scott paused mid drink. He’d been sure his father’s concern for Johnny had trumped the man’s curiosity regarding the physician’s slip of the tongue. “Sir?”
Eyes narrowing, Murdoch surveyed his eldest. “The ‘little event’” he said, quoting Sam before nailing Scott with his own words, “‘small problem’.” When there was no immediate response, he reached out and laid his left hand on his son’s right shoulder, squeezing a bit. “If you think I’ve forgotten about Sam’s little slip upstairs, son, or that I’m buying into your brother’s ‘I don’t remember’ act, not only are you sadly mistaken; but Harlan wasted a great deal of money educating you at Harvard.”
Scott was suddenly very thirsty. Drinking, however -- since his father’s hand had slipped from his shoulder to encircle his wrist -- was not an option. It would, he knew, be pointless to lie. Resigned to the unpleasantness he knew was coming, he began. “You know that Val Crawford has purchased that small spread outside of town; the one the bank auctioned off last month?”
Murdoch nodded. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. “And?’ Sensing his son needed fortifying, he let go of the younger man’s wrist.
“Val’s plan is to stock the place,” he continued, taking a drink. He canted his head in his father’s direction. “He’s been seeing Sarah Townsend, Murdoch, and I think it’s pretty serious.” Reading his father’s mind, he plunged on. “I’ve talked to him, and he doesn’t have any plans to give up his job. I think he’s just looking to make an investment for the future.”
Murdoch recognized a stall when he heard one. “And that has what to do with,” his jaws tensed as he repeated the words, “the ‘small problem’?”
Scott inhaled. “Val bought a blooded mare and a two year old colt from Beaumont when he came through last week.” He sighed. “King Ranch breeding; both animals.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot upwards, almost disappearing into his hair line. A King Ranch mare and colt out of Texas would be expensive; very expensive. It didn’t surprise him that Val had the money -- the sheriff had retained the right to collect rewards when he had been hired and had recently tracked down two men with hefty bounties on their heads -- but Val was notorious for his reticent spending habits. He never bought a drink when he could sucker someone else into buying. “AND?”
Scott tipped back his drink, draining the glass. “And Barranca consummated a relationship with the mare just as Beaumont was handing over the bill of sale.” At the livery, directly across the street from Widow Haggis’s’ store, just as Señora Baldemero and her grandchildren were returning from morning mass. The palomino had also roughed up the colt a bit before they were able to get everything sorted out. Scott was wise enough not to mention those details.
There wasn’t enough Glenlivet on the estancia -- perhaps even in Scotland -- to quench the thirst Murdoch Lancer was experiencing. He knew exactly where Beaumont conducted business when he was in town, whose store was across the street, and had a pretty damned good idea about what time the transaction had taken place. What surprised him was that Johnny was still alive and Val hadn’t killed him. “And your brother is still alive why?” he asked.
The answer to this one wasn’t going to be quite so easy, Scott mused. The situation was also a lot less funny than it had been at the time. “Johnny and I took a vote,” he murmured. “We decided it would be a good idea if Lancer paid Val for the damages -- anticipated and otherwise -- and we contributed the cash to buy Val a second, unsullied mare.”
Murdoch made a mental note to schedule an appointment with Jonathan Randolph to amend the partnership agreement. “We’re going to geld that damned horse!” he announced, pouring himself another whisky. He was so upset he didn’t even notice he had spilled.
The harsh declaration didn’t really surprise Scott, but he still jumped. “Johnny won’t agree to this, Murdoch.”
Murdoch snorted. “In spite of what you seem to think, Scott, I call the tune here, not you and your brother.”
The blond considered the words, and slowly nodded his head. “If he’s going to be angry with someone, it will be with both of us,” he said. “We’ll tell him we took a vote; two to one.”
“A vote,” Murdoch echoed. “Something it appears you and your brother seem to think you can do when I’m not about.”
Scott hid a smile with his upraised hand. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, sir.” Mainly because Val was threatening to do great bodily harm to not only Johnny, but the horse he had ridden into town on.
A smile touched the older man’s lips. “Your brother is unconscious,” he reminded.
Scott levered himself up from the chair. “All the better,” he grinned. “We won’t have to listen to his arguments.” Or his whining. Johnny pleading like a two-year old sometimes made Murdoch particularly vulnerable.
Sam had wandered back into the Great Room from the kitchen. He was looking very content. “Have I missed something, or do I want to know?” he asked.
Murdoch saluted the man with his glass. “Scott and I have just taken a vote. We’ve decided it’s time Barranca was gelded.”
The physician was helping himself to a brandy. “Have you also taken a vote to decide which one of you is going to tell Johnny?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was standing at the foot of his younger son’s bed. He’d lost the coin toss. His hands were wrapped around the footboard and he was massaging the wood. “Your brother and I have come to a decision,” he began.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t like waking up and having his father looming over him; not first thing in the morning. And it was morning. He knew that from the way the sun was cutting through the narrow opening in the drapes on his bedroom window, spilling a bright gold ribbon across his bedspread. Concentrating on the motes of dust that danced in the warm glow, he decided to wait. Hell, he’d already blown a day and a half being out of it.
“It’s about Barranca,” Scott volunteered. Then, seeing the look on his sibling’s face, he decided to say more. “We took a vote.” He gestured with a long forefinger towards his father and then towards his own chest. “Two to one.”
Struggling to pull himself up a bit, Johnny’s gaze drifted from one man to the other. “About what?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “And how the Hell can you take a vote when I’m passed out?”
Murdoch speared his youngest with a penetrating glare. “The same way you and your brother took a vote when you contributed Lancer money to buy Val Crawford a King Ranch mare!”
Johnny collapsed back against his pillows, wishing he could sink into the mattress and disappear.
Scott failed to hide the smile. “Majority rules,” he volunteered; “same way it did when we took the vote in Green River.” There was a pause. “Two to one,” he repeated, again pointing back and forth between his father and himself.
Suspicion was clawing at Johnny’s belly, making noises deep down in his gut. There’d been a lot of dancing around since all the yammering had started, and it wasn’t helping his headache. “Vote about what?” he ventured, not sure he wanted to know. He had the sinking feeling in the bottom of his belly he was never going to be allowed into Green River again, or to hunt wild horses up in the canyons.
Murdoch got right to the point. “To have Barranca gelded,” he answered.
Johnny bolted upright in the bed; immediately regretting the move. It didn’t help that he could feel the family jewels digging an escape tunnel in a northerly route heading directly towards his brain. “No.” He shook his head. “Hell, no!”
The bed rocked a bit as Murdoch gripped the footboard even more tightly. “It’s not like we haven’t had this discussion before, Johnny. I told you then you needed to make a choice. Barranca turned out to stud,” he raised a hand to forestall the coming argument, “which I agreed to, or you would make the necessary changes to insure the animal would reach his full potential as a working stock horse. You cannot have it both ways.”
“Can to,” Johnny pouted stubbornly. He stared up at his father. “Ain’t had no complaints from the cows, Old Man. Or any of the other livestock runnin’ around Lancer.”
There was a chuffing sound from Scott. “Only because they can’t speak,” he scoffed. Barranca had a unique way of herding when he was feeling feisty; cows, mules, chickens and -- on more than one occasion -- Dewdrop. It was the same technique the palomino had displayed up in the canyon and -- before that -- in town when the animal had deflowered Val’s mare. “This needs to be done, Johnny.”
Johnny detected the slight hint of I’m your big brother, listen to me in Scott’s tone, and he resented it. Throwing caution to the wind, he addressed his sibling. “Well, thank you for your opinion, Mr. ‘since you asked, it was the cavalry’ know-it-all Lancer! Who asked ya?”
Scott’s expression was now exactly the same as his father’s: resolute. “This is the third time in as many weeks Barranca has gone on the rut with you on his back,” he began, not feeling one mote of guilt over disclosing information Johnny had been less than willing to share. “Frankly, little brother, I’m getting tired of picking you up out of the dirt. Either turn him out to stud, or take care of business.”
Murdoch’s face had gone from ruddy to plum. “Three times?” he ground out. “Three…times??”
“Two and a half,” Johnny sulked. “Stayed in my seat the first time.”
Scott laughed. “Oh, please! If Cip hadn’t roped you and kept you upright until you finally…” he repeated the word, “…finally got Barranca under control, I would have been hauling you out of Cedar Creek.” Driving Barranca into the snow chilled waters of Cedar Creek had been an excellent idea, he mused. Cold water had had a remarkable effect on the stallion’s ardor.
“Enough!” Murdoch bellowed. He turned to his younger son. “The matter is no longer open to discussion. Come Saturday morning, Sam will be out here…”
Once again, Johnny made the mistake of trying to sit up. “Sam?” he hollered, the pain making him even crankier. “What the Hell would Sam be doin’…?”
Murdoch dismissed his son with a wave of his hand. “He volunteered,” he replied without looking back. It was true. The physician had even said he would waive his fee. He was gone before his son could respond.
With Murdoch out of the room, there was only one target for Johnny’s rancor and he zeroed right in. “Thanks, pendejo (asshole),” he snarled, his eyes exploring the bedside table for something to throw. With his right arm in a sling, his choices were limited. In spite of the awkwardness, he turned slightly, reaching out with his left hand for the porcelain water pitcher Teresa insisted stay in his room, in spite of the indoor plumbing across the hall. Blue roses, he snickered. Who the hell in their right mind would paint blue roses?
Scott’s fingers closed around the younger man’s wrist before he could make the toss. “Temper, temper,” he teased, taking the vessel and placing it on the floor well out of reach.
Johnny slumped back onto the bed. “Sam?” He didn’t wait for his brother to reply. “The Old Man’s got a fuckin’ horse doctor diggin’ lead out of me and patchin’ me up?” The pout appeared again; more petulant than before. “Prob’bly gives ‘im a fuckin’ discount,” he groused.
The blond smiled. “Sam is not a horse doctor,” he chided. “But as a small town physician, I imagine he’s supplemented his income by performing many chores.” He shrugged. “Surgery is surgery…” Heading across the room to the low dresser that sat just to the left of the door, he picked up the small bottle of laudanum Sam had left behind.
Just as he was uncorking the container, Teresa swept across the threshold.
“Breakfast,” the young woman piped.
Johnny took a quick look at the tray and made a face. Beneath the white linen napkin was the distinct outline of two mugs. “Tea and broth,” he fussed. “All that stuff does is make me want to piss.”
Scott took the tray and headed back towards the bed. “Johnny,” he cautioned. “Me or Murdoch,” he said. He was talking about the laudanum as well the liquids.
Teresa was busy tidying up the room. It was obvious the young woman had something on her mind. Johnny peeked around his brother’s slim form. “You already folded that damned shirt twice, T’resa,” he groused. “You keep smoothin’ it out like that, there ain’t gonna be nothin’ left but lint.”
The girl’s temper flared, her eyes growing wide. She shook the shirt out. “And if you keep falling off Barranca, there won’t be anything left to mend!” Wadding the shirt into a shapeless blob, she pirouetted and headed for the hallway. “And to think I was going to tell you I’m sorry about Barranca!” The pillow hit the doorjamb just as she exited the room.
Scott made room for the tray on Johnny’s bedside table. “Time to soldier on, little brother,” he said, holding out the mug of tea.
“Veta al carajo! (go fuck yourself),” the youth sputtered. He was rewarded with a solid smack to his right leg. Scott understood a hell of a lot more Spanish than he let on.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was standing beside his younger son’s bed, tablespoon in hand. It was twilight, and it had been an extremely long and trying day. “Open…your…mouth,” he ordered.
Johnny’s head rocked back and forth against the sweat drenched pillow. His mouth was tightly closed; his lips blue, and the sweat was pouring off his forehead. “Un-uh,” he grimaced.
“John, you are going to take your medicine,” Murdoch declared. “You need to give your body time to heal, and that’s not going to happen if you don’t get some sleep. Now open your mouth.”
It was clear from Murdoch’s tone he meant business, and Johnny knew he would ultimately lose the battle. The old man was cagey and he didn’t fight fair; something the boy knew from past experience. But sleep was not an option. Fuck, no. The wind had shifted and Barranca was pacing deep ruts into the packed clay of the paddock, as if he could smell the mares in heat in two counties.
The youth was roused from his musing by a sharp pinch to his nose. The need to breathe overwhelmed him, and he opened his mouth.
“There!” Murdoch gloated.
Johnny felt his tongue go numb, but he didn’t swallow. Two can play this fuckin’ game, Old Man, he thought. Cocking his right leg, he smoothly swept his foot aside and knocked the tray that was sitting at the foot of his bed onto the floor. The clatter of breaking china was music to his ears. When his father bent forward to pick up the litter, Johnny lifted the edge of his quilt and spit the laudanum into the sheeting. He was smiling when his father turned back to face him. “Sorry,” he murmured contritely.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. He reached out, hesitating before adjusting the wick on the bedside lantern. Johnny appeared to be settling in. The boy’s eyes were shut, the eyelashes fluttering a bit as if he were fighting sleep; something he had done as a toddler. A smile touched the older man’s lips, the corners of his mouth quirking up as a treasured memory tumbled out from the far corners of his mind. Johnny had sucked his thumb when he was little; so much that by the time he was two there had been a small callous just below the joint.
Timidly, and with great care, the big man reached out to caress his son’s right hand, his own thumb stroking the boy’s, a soft sigh coming as he realized -- had he been foolish to hope? -- the callous was no longer there. No fool like an old fool, he mused.
Surprisingly, Johnny hadn’t moved at all when his father had touched him. The incidents where the boy actually recoiled from such contact were long past now; but there was always some instinctual reaction. It was enough to make the older man suspicious.
The boy would bear watching. Murdoch pulled himself erect, his right hand going to the stiffness in his lower back as he grimaced and cursed. Pardee, first; and then getting old. Straightening his son’s blankets, he turned his attention back to the oil lamp, pausing for one last look before turning down the wick. The discoloration around Johnny’s eyes was already becoming evident. In the dim light, the shadows that played across the bruises made him not only look younger, but gave him the look of a giant raccoon.
He gave Johnny’s forehead a gentle pat and took his leave. He would be checking in on the boy later; in fact, would be checking on him throughout the night. Pulling the bedroom door only partially shut, Murdoch headed for the stairs.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny’s eyes snapped open as soon as his father left the room. He allowed himself time to adjust to the muted light, familiar forms within the room taking shape as his pupils widened and his night vision improved. It took him a little while to realize his father hadn’t shut his bedroom door completely, but he shook it off as something the old man would have done to avoid making noise. Not that the hinges would have squeaked. Hell, the only noise the Old Man willingly tolerated in the house was the sound of the fuckin’ clock in the Great Room.
Stretching his left arm high above his head to relieve the crick in his neck, the young man considered his long day. Traffic through his room, as was usual when he was sick or busted up, had been pretty heavy. It seemed like every five minutes someone was popping through the doorway. Hell, Teresa had been working overtime to make a pest out of herself, and by lunch he’d been fed up. He’d made her cry twice before he even finished the fuckin’ broth, which was just great until Murdoch got wind of what was going on.
That was good for twenty minutes of getting his ass chewed.
It had been worth it, though. With Teresa all upset and Maria babyin’ her, that cut down the visitors to Scott and the Old Man. It had given him a chance to plead Barranca’s cause. Well, to at least try.
He sighed. God, the Old Man could be stubborn bastard. In the end, the result had been the same: either put Barranca out to stud, or turn him into a working cow pony. Like they couldn’t just call a spade a spade. Cut off his balls is what they were talkin’.
Johnny’s left hand crawled beneath the quilt as he instinctively groped at his crotch. Just the thought of castration was enough to provoke a need to protect the family jewels. It provoked some deep thought, too, as his hand lingered. What the Hell kind of life did Barranca have to look forward to if he couldn’t get a piece of ass once in a while? Jesus. Even the Old Man got laid on occasion. And enjoyed it, if his good mood after the weekly dinners at Aggie’s was any indication. Johnny grinned. He’d even heard the Old Man whistlin’ once after one of those ‘dinners’, and the mood had lasted until the next morning.
Well, at least until he caught me sneakin’ in after an all-nighter in Green River. The memory of his night on the town prompted a bit more exploration and some serious hand work. Nothin’ like a little self-pleasurin’ to ease a man’s aches and pains.
Johnny’s mind was full of pictures now. Feeling pretty cocky, ain’t you, Madrid? he thought, stifling a giggle and feeling more than a bit proud at the play on words. Images of the girls he knew from the upstairs cribs at the Red Dog and Silver Dollar were waltzing across his mind in various stages of undress, losing clothes as the parade continued.
And then the image of Rachel Fairchild sauntered into his head. She was fully clothed, and it was enough of a letdown to cause him to pause in his handiwork. Damned woman, he cursed mentally. The perky, auburn haired madame had an annoying habit of calling him boy every time she saw him, and was always teasing him about being Scott Lancer’s little brother.
The young man’s eyes narrowed. Little brother, my ass, he fumed, checking himself out for reassurance. Hadn’t had any complaints in that department. He frowned, recalling Scott’s wise ass comment that the ‘ladies’ at the bordellos were being paid for their services, and tended to pass out compliments if they thought it might garner them a generous tip or repeat business.
There was still a lot about Johnny Lancer that was more boy than man sometimes, and this was one of them. Scott, like the Old Man, was pretty damned tall, and that set the kid in Johnny Madrid to wondering…
Aw, fuck! He shook the doubts away and got down to business.
Unfortunately for Johnny the down side of a hand job was once he got the juices flowing and the naked women dancing in his head, the pure pleasure of the experience left him as exhausted as if he’d spent the whole night upstairs at the Silver Dollar. Barranca completely forgotten, he promptly fell asleep.
He was still sleeping when Murdoch eased the door open and crept into the room. The older man was immediately aware of the musk-like odor and shook his head. The fact Johnny was sprawled out on his back, his left hand tucked inside his underwear, did nothing to help the man’s mood. There were some things in his sons’ lives he regretted missing; their boyish nocturnal mischief was not one of them.
Shifting the youth’s body until the blankets were somewhat straight, he covered the boy up. Except for Johnny’s left leg. Knowing his son had given up a bit too easily about Barranca’s impending castration, he intended on keeping close tabs on the boy. Smiling, he looped the narrow cord about his son’s ankle.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny woke slowly. Forgetting about the sling on his right arm, he attempted to scrape the sleep out of his eyes; wincing as he changed hands. Hell. He hadn’t intended to go to sleep. Rubbing vigorously with his left hand at his too long hair, he tried to gather his senses.
His thoughts in order, he began to ponder. I just need to get Barranca away from the ranch, he thought. Hell, the Old Man is just pissed off right now; not thinkin’ straight. It’s like when he gets all bent out of shape over some little thing I done, or forgot to do. Like Scott always says; all I need to do is give the Old Man a little time to cool off, some time to ‘rethink and revaluate the situation’…
He began to plot. It wasn’t that big of a deal. All he had to do was get out of the house and get to the barn. Hell, as horny as Barranca had been lately, all it would take was the smell of freedom and the memories of the wild bunch and the stallion would be long gone. He’d give ‘im a week or two in the hills and then bring him back. How hard was that?
Awkwardly, he pushed himself upright on the bed and swung his legs over the side. He knew at once it was going to be a hell of lot harder than he thought when he was laying flat on his back. His entire body felt like one big toothache. Even breathing hurt.
Sucking in a deep breath in anticipation of the coming pain, the youth eased his right arm out of the sling. Jesus fuckin’ H. Christ, he grimaced, gritting his teeth. He blew out the breath he had just taken, his eyes watering. He’d passed out when Sam had popped the shoulder back into place, but not before he’d experienced the grinding pain that always proceeded the manipulation. It had been easier when he was just a kid; when the shoulder seemed to pop back into place of its own accord; but not anymore.
His fingers were tingling when he finally worked his arm free of the sling, and he flexed his hand a couple of times. Good thing this wasn’t a Madrid job, he thought ruefully. Then, steeling himself against the dizziness he knew was coming and ignoring the prickly sensation of sleep in his legs and feet, he stood up and took several steps forward towards the chair where his father had hung his calzoneras.
The heart attack would have been fatal if Scott hadn’t bounded into his room and immediately performed emergency first aid. The noise had been enough to wake the dead. Johnny sat, his face and shoulder soaking wet with a gallon of ice cold water. “What the hell is this!?” he demanded, tugging on the rope that was fastened around his ankle.
Scott placed the half full glass of tepid water back on Johnny’s night stand. “Just what it looks like, brother,” he answered. “A cow bell.” He bit his lip to stop the laughter when, open-mouthed, Johnny stared up at him. “Murdoch tied it to your leg when you were asleep.”
Johnny had pushed himself into a sitting position. “You fuckin’ threw water on me!”
“I thought you were sleepwalking,” Scott fibbed.
Johnny didn’t believe it; not for a minute. “You lyin’ sack of shit!” He started to take a swing at his brother’s head, only to feel the stab of pain in his shoulder.
“John, what are you doing out of bed?” Murdoch’s massive frame towered above both younger men, his bulk blocking out the light from the hallway.
Shit! Shit, shit, shit. Johnny remained where he was, sitting on his ass, a hang dog expression on his face. “He threw a bucket of water on me,” he pouted. Then, in a stroke of brilliance. “I was sleepwalkin’. Coulda give me a heart attack.”
Scott’s eyes lifted towards the ceiling and he was shaking his head. “I heard the cow bell,” he murmured.
Murdoch was collecting his younger son. “You were trying to sneak out,” he accused, pulling the youth to his feet and dusting the boy’s rear end off as if there was actually an accumulation of dirt on the seat of his cut off long johns. “And why is your arm not in that sling?”
Johnny was pouting. “Wasn’t tryin’ to sneak out,” he lied. “Had to use the jake.”
“I thought you said you were sleepwalking,” the older man snorted. And then, turning to his elder son. “Take your brother to the bathroom.”
Ordinarily, being assigned such a chore would have caused Scott to protest, but this was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. “Of course, sir,” he smiled. “Anything to accommodate my little brother, to give him a hand during his time of need.”
Padding barefooted towards the hallway, Johnny shot his brother a hard look. “Fuck you,” he muttered. He picked up his pace as his felt a swish of cool air across his posterior, knowing his father had just taken a swing at his behind.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He was sitting on the very edge of his bed, his head moving back and forth in cadence with his father’s pacing. The movement was making him nauseous. Needing a diversion, he shifted his gaze to his brother, who was leaning against the far wall, smirking.
Murdoch finally stopped pacing. When he spoke, the fatigue and the frustration was in his voice. “Sam made it very clear you were to stay in your room,” his rigid forefinger thumped against the mattress, “in this bed, until he sees you again on Saturday. The only exceptions were to be the necessary,” he repeated the word, stressing it, “necessary trips to the facilities. And your arm was to remain in that sling.
“I have no idea why you find it so difficult to follow even the most simple and straight forward instructions, but this is how it’s going to be.” He pointed to the bedroom door. “If you so much as put one foot across that threshold, John, your backside is going to become intimately acquainted with my belt.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. He was actually putting his right arm back into the sling, and when he completed the chore, he held it out for inspection. “You’d whomp on me when I got my arm in a sling?” he protested.
Murdoch leaned in suddenly, his arms rigid against the mattress; one on either side of his son’s compact rear. His lips were so close to the youth’s right ear, the boy’s dark hair moved when he spoke. “Trust me, John. If you try and sneak out of this room again, you arm isn’t the only portion of your anatomy that is going to be in a sling.” He let the words sink in. “Do I make myself clear?”
Straightening up, Murdoch eyed his younger boy, not at all happy with the insolence. “Then what did I just tell you?”
Johnny rolled his eyes. He didn’t know there was going to be a fuckin’ test. “That I better not take one step across that threshold,” he jerked his head towards the doorway, “and you’re gonna beat my ass if I do.” His eyes narrowed as he lifted his sore arm again. “Even if I got my arm in a sling.”
Murdoch nodded. “Very good.” He cocked his head as the clock in the Great Room tolled off the hours, mentally counting the strokes. Aloud he said, “Midnight.” Turning to his son, he issued another ultimatum. “Go to bed.”
Scott shoved himself away from the wall. “Brother,” he nodded and then followed after his father.
“Uh, Pa…?” Johnny hadn’t moved.
Murdoch stopped dead in his tracks. When he turned, he was face to face with his elder son. Scott was smiling as if he knew a secret he wasn’t going to share. Murdoch pushed him aside. “Yes, John?’
Johnny had decided to give the Old Man another chance. “If I promise to do what you tell me,” he began, bargaining, “can Barranca keep his balls?”
Instinctively, Scott put his hands over his ears. It didn’t do any good.
“No!” Murdoch roared. Lack of sleep, concern over his son -- his idiot, black-eyed, broken and battered man-child -- had driven him over the edge.
Wisely, Scott stepped out of the way as his father bulled past him into the hallway. “Johnny,” he sighed.
Resignedly, Scott scrubbed at his face with both hands. “Nothing,” he muttered. Without another word, he headed into the hallway. He pulled the door shut behind him, his hand lingering on the knob as he heard the latch snap; seriously wishing he had asked his father for the key.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was still sitting on the edge of the bed, the fingers of his left hand drumming against the mattress. Saturday, he thought. Two more days, and Barranca’s balls would be history. Shit!
Turning slightly, he eyed the bedroom door. Murdoch had been pretty damned specific about crossing the damned threshold. He mimicked his father’s words: ‘If you so much as put one foot across that threshold, John, your backside is going to become intimately acquainted with my belt.’
A slow grin crawled across the young man’s face. The Old Man hadn’t said a fuckin’ thing about goin’ out the window.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Maria was going to be pissed. But when you were in a room on the second floor of a hacienda that was built like a fuckin’ fort, you had to be creative. And Johnny Madrid Lancer had always been creative.
He hadn’t realized how much noise ripping a starched sheet into strips was going to make until he made the first tear, but it sure in hell seemed pretty damned loud. Chewing on his lower lip -- man, it hurt where the stitches were -- he continued to tear the sheet into long strips. He wasn’t taking any chances. Nope. He was going to double the linen rope.
It hurt like hell to keep using the arm, but he was desperate. Getting out of the house through the window, going down the back wall, getting past Maria’s room off the kitchen, across the courtyard and to the paddock wasn’t going to be the easiest thing he’d done in the past couple days. Hell, no. Getting bounced off the back of rutting stallion had been a lot easier. He hadn’t even had to think about that one.
Not that he was pissed at Barranca. Nope. The horse was only doing what came naturally. What he was goin’ to keep doin’.
Knotting the strips of sheeting together, Johnny secured one end to the grillwork and tested the knot. Wrapping a length of the linen rope around his waist and propping one foot solidly against the wall, he rocked back. The knots held.
Shirtless, but wearing his calzoneras, Johnny coiled the linen rope and then dropped it through the window. Sucking his already flat belly in even deeper, the youth snaked between the uprights. He gritted his teeth as his right shoulder briefly connected with the corner of the window, and steeled himself against the pain. And then he dropped into the darkness.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott bolted upright in his bed, his first instinct the need to arm himself. He was sure and certain the hacienda had just come under attack by some revenge seeking Modoc and that the blood curdling scream he had heard was a war cry. Grabbing his trousers, he jammed first one leg and then the other into his pants and -- not bothering to fasten the fly -- opened his door and raced into the hallway.
Sleep tousled, Murdoch stumbled into the corridor, almost colliding with his elder son. The scream -- extremely high pitched -- had faded into nothingness, and somehow the quiet was even more foreboding than the noise. “Teresa?” Murdoch asked.
The blond shrugged his shoulders. “A nightmare, perhaps, but…”
Teresa’s door opened and she cautiously peered into the hallway. “Murdoch?” Then, seeing Scott, who was not only bare-chested, but whose trousers were hanging precariously from his trim hips, she called out to her brother. “Scott?”
Murdoch stepped in front of his elder son. “Go back to bed, darling,” he instructed. “Scott and I will find out what’s going on.”
Yawning, the girl nodded her head and withdrew.
Two voices. One word.
In tandem, father and son started down the hallway. Murdoch reached out and opened the door. Scott immediately went to the bedside table and struck a match to the lantern. He adjusted the wick, turning the flame up as high as possible.
Johnny’s bed was a mess. The patchwork quilt was on the floor and the top sheet missing. Murdoch moved in for a closer examination, his bare feet tangling in the sling Johnny had discarded on the floor.
Scott removed the green shade from the bedside lamp, his eyes widening as the pale light spread and encompassed more of the room. And then he saw it; the remnants of the makeshift rope still secured to the second upright.
“If he isn’t dead,” Murdoch ground out, “I am going to kill him.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Cipriano was in the garden when the two elder Lancers came through the French Doors from the Great Room. He was on one knee, a lantern on the ground beside him. Johnny was lying at his side; curled into a fetal position, and out cold. “It appears, Patrón, he landed on this,” the segundo gestured to the remains of the wooden quilt rack that had been standing on a layer of paper that had been put down to catch wet paint, “and then fell to the ground.”
Scott was doing a little mental calculating, his gaze going to Johnny’s bedroom window, and then to the linen rope that was dangling from the bars, and finally, to the broken quilt rack. It didn’t take a science major to figure out Johnny, who had run out of rope several feet above the ground, had ended up straddling the sturdy oak frame. Hence the high-pitched, almost operatic scream.
Murdoch turned to his foreman. “Send Mateo for Sam, please, Cip,” he muttered.
Cipriano nodded. “Will you need help getting Juanito back to his room?”
Murdoch shook his head no. “Scott and I can manage.” He smiled across at his friend, the smile growing, as over Cipriano’s shoulder, he spied Maria. “We have reinforcements.”
Cipriano laughed, bowing slightly to the housekeeper as she came out the back door. Already, the unhappy woman was assessing the situation. The first thing she spied was the torn sheets. The rapid-fire incantations had already begun.
Bending to retrieve his brother, Scott leaned into his father’s arms as he stood up. It took a little time to steady his burden, and any attempt to straighten the boy’s body met with total and utter failure; along with prolonged whimpers of pain. In the end, he carried him into the house and up to his room like a baby.
The situation improved once they had Johnny in his bedroom. Maria had hustled ahead of them and had changed the sheets. And there was the laudanum. In fact, for the first time ever Johnny asked for a dose of the medication. He had to ask two times, because when he attempted to talk his voice was an octave higher than usual.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny hovered in a netherworld, somewhere between gut wrenching pain and a sensation he was floating without any feeling at all. As he began his return to the real world, the numbness was slowly winning out over the pain.
His brain was really numb. He knew the cause. For the past several hours, Scott had been reading to him. Some piece of shit book about a guy who was locked up in prison and had to wear an iron mask; who was friends with the characters from another book with funny names like Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. That had been a long book, too.
voice was penetrating the void again. “‘Chapter 10, Crown and Tiara:
Aramis was the first to descend from the carriage; he held the door open for the young man. He saw him place his foot on the mossy ground with a trembling of the whole body, and walk round the carriage with an unsteady and almost tottering step. It seemed as if the poor prisoner were unaccustomed to walk on God’s earth.’”
Fucking chapter ten, Johnny thought. He warily opened one eye, and audible gasp coming as he saw the size of the volume Scott was balancing on one cocked knee. “What day is it?” he rasped.
Scott peered across the top of the book at his brother. “Back among the living, I see.” He carefully placed a book mark between the pages he had been reading and closed the book. “It’s Friday.”
Carefully, Johnny did a full body stretch; his eyes widening as the pain hit. There was another sensation as well. His bed felt wet. He shimmied his butt a tad in an attempt to find a dry spot.
“The ice must be melting,” Scott said. He put the book down and levered himself up from his chair.
“Hey!” Johnny clutched at the blankets with his left hand. He was doing a quick mental assessment. His right arm was strapped across his chest -- Sam’s work, no doubt -- the stitches at the side of his mouth were itching like all holy hell, and his ass was wet.
“What do you remember?” Scott asked. He was tugging at the quilt.
Not much, Johnny thought. “Nothin’.”
Scott’s mouth turned up in a wry smile. “Of course. And you are also feeling fine.” His right hand snaked under the blankets, and it when it reappeared he was holding a thick layer of fabric. The towel was dripping. He dropped it into the basin that was sitting on the floor at the end of the bed.
At least the wet bed was getting warm. “What was the towel for?” Johnny asked.
“To hold the ice,” Scott answered. He studied his brother’s face; saw the sudden flicker of pain and the clenching of teeth. As usual, Johnny was fighting through the discomfort.
“Ice?” Johnny turned to face his sibling.
“To keep down the swelling.”
Johnny had to think about that a minute. His eyes drifted to the window. From the position of the sun he figured it to be around noon. And it was Friday, he remembered. He decided to risk it. “Scott. About Barranca. You figure you could maybe talk to the Old Man, tell him you changed your vote…” Grimacing, he reached up with his left hand and fingered the still tender flesh under both eyes, his forefinger and thumb meeting on the still tender bridge of his nose. It was a blatant sympathy move.
Scott couldn’t believe what he was hearing or seeing. “Have you no shame?” he asked; the humor in his voice shading the exasperation. His brother was, if nothing else, single minded. Like a dog with a bone that had already been licked and sucked dry of marrow.
“C’mon, brother.” Johnny paused a heartbeat. The longer he and Scott knew each other, the harder it was becoming to con his brother. He averted his eyes, and began picking at the loose threads on his quilt. He sighed. It was a woeful sound.
“It’s not going to work,” Scott declared; “the pity thing.” He really dreaded the next, but knew there was no point in putting it off. “Besides, it’s too late.”
Johnny’s head jerked up, his eyes wide. “What the hell do you mean, ‘too late’?” he demanded. “The Old Man said Saturday; said Sam was going to come out here…”
Scott raised his hand, effectively stopping the tirade. “That was before your little excursion out the window, when we had to fetch Sam from Green River at three o’clock in the morning.” He leaned in, one eyebrow arching. “He was not amused,” he observed.
“And he fuckin’ cut Barranca?” Unmindful of the pain, Johnny pushed himself up in the bed. “The Old Man let him cut Barranca!?”
“The Old Man let him cut Barranca.” Murdoch’s voice carried from the hallway, preceding the big man as he stepped across the threshold. He was dressed in his work clothes and was dusting the thin yellow powder from his trousers.
“You got no right!” Johnny’s cheeks were bright red, a stark contrast to the yellowing bruises beneath his eyes and at the corner of his mouth. “Of all the underhanded, dirty, double-dealing, behind the back, fuckin’ snake in the grass, cock-sucking sneaky…”
Murdoch was standing at the foot of his son’s bed; his arms folded sedately across his chest, a bemused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It was amazing just how much his usually reticent son could say when he was inclined to voice his opinions. The language, however, left much to be desired. “That’s enough, John.”
Something in his father’s voice, the quiet resolve, caused the younger man to immediately shut up. It didn’t take him long to regain his voice, but his tone was far less belligerent. “You had no right…” he murmured, dropping his head.
“Your being hurt gave me the right,” Murdoch announced. “And as for being sneaky, young man,” he paused, unfolding his long arms and shaking a finger at his youngest. “What do you call it when you climb out of a window after you’ve been told not to leave your …”
Johnny’s head came up. “You didn’t say nothin’ about the window,” he challenged.
Scott considered punching his brother’s arm and changed his mind. Instead, he thumped his ear with a cocked forefinger. “Shut…up,” he seethed.
“Fuck you!” Johnny snapped back. Big mistake.
Murdoch was beside the bed now. “I would suggest, John, you consider very carefully the next words that come out of your mouth. Barranca has been gelded. You are confined to this room,” he thumped the boy’s mattress with two rigid fingers, “this bed, until Sam tells you otherwise. And then, my boy, you and I are going to have a very long and very serious conversation; in the barn. End of discussion.”
Johnny watched in subdued silence as his father exited the room. “Don’t know what he’s so pissed off about,” he grouched. “Not like it was his balls that got cut off.” Jesus. He felt an intense tug in his nether regions, as if he had just been sucker punched.
Scott had picked up the book he had been reading and slipped back into the bedside chair. “Let it go, Johnny,” he advised. He was shaking his head. “Sometimes, little brother, I have a great deal of difficulty understanding just exactly what it is that prompts you to be so…”
“So…what?” the younger man queried, his tone peevish. He was beginning to seriously hurt again, the pain moving from the valley of dull ache to the high plateau of Jesus Fucking H. Christ.
“So…Johnny,” Scott answered. He smiled. “You continued to ride a horse that -- on more than one occasion -- seriously injured you. You went out the window. You were, according to what Maria discovered in the remains of your torn sheeting, habitually spitting out the laudanum Sam prescribed, and…” the smile grew, “…contributing other mysterious fluids to her starched linens.” He watched as his brother’s face turned crimson.
“She checks my sheets?” Johnny’s eyes squeezed shut and he sunk down deeper into the goose down pillows. He pulled the quilt up over his face.
Scott’s long fingers were stroking the gilded edges of the book he was still holding. “Well, it hasn’t been all that long since she was checking your diapers,” he teased. “And better Maria than Teresa.”
It was awkward, taking a punch at his brother with his left hand, but Johnny gave it all he had. Which, right now, wasn’t all that much. He let out a great puff of air. “Damn, that smarts…”
Scott watched as his brother eased back in the bed. “Time for some more ice?”
Johnny turned a curious eye on his brother. “What the hell for?” he asked.
“You’re in pain, Johnny. It’s written all over your face.” Scott waited. “Where do you hurt?”
The younger man considered the question. He tried flexing his entire body, wincing as he heard several joints pop. “Be easier to tell you where I don’t hurt,” he said finally. “What the hell happened when I fell, Scott? I mean, I had it all figured out.” He gestured towards the window and then back to the bed. “One minute, I’m workin’ my way down the rope, and the next thing I know, I wake up here.”
“Let me guess. You had a plan,” Scott surmised. He didn’t even bother to hide the smile.
“Well, the Old Man told me not to set one foot across that fuckin’ threshold,” Johnny grumped. “So it was the window, or nothin’.” He shrugged. “Had to get to Barranca.” That had worked out for shit. He felt a genuine pang of guilt and wondered how the horse was doing.
“You really don’t remember.” Scott rose up from the chair and stretched. “You ran out of… rope … about eight feet above where you thought you were going to land.” Hands on hips, he rounded on his brother. “How could you not remember the garden area below your window is three feet below grade?”
Johnny held up his hand in protest. “You’re the one with the fuckin’ college degree,” he declared, his voice rising, “and all the interest in that engineerin’ shit. Not me.”
Scott snorted. “It’s architectural shit,” he shot back. The argument, he knew, was pointless. And a diversion. “It appears, little brother, you ended up straddling the quilting rack Teresa was painting. By the time Murdoch and I got downstairs, Cip was with you and you were passed out cold on the ground.” He shook his head. “When Sam got here to examine you, your…” it was the blond’s turn to blush, although it wasn’t quite as deep as his brother’s, “…genitals…” he knew Johnny recognized the word, “…were…” He couldn’t finish. Even the thought was too painful.
“Were what?” Johnny had managed to push himself up in the bed again.
Deep in the recesses of Scott’s devious mind, his evil twin was awakening. Grinning, he settled back into the chair. So intent was he on his mischief, he forgot the book that was sitting on the chair’s flat bottom. Feeling the pressure against his left buttock, he picked the novel up and set it aside. “Well, little brother, let’s just say you suffered some rather extensive damage.”
Instinctively, Johnny’s left hand began a quick journey beneath the quilt. He didn’t get very far before his brother’s long fingers wrapped around his wrist.
“No, no,” Scott cautioned, as if he were reprimanding a small child. He smacked his sibling’s hand. “Sam said you mustn’t touch.” The quick smile came again. “Germs, you know. Can’t be too careful.”
Johnny was quiet, mulling things over in his mind. How the hell had things gotten so fuckin’ far out of hand? One minute, he was riding Barranca and chasing wild horses -- one of his favorite things, and the Old Man had actually been with him -- and the next thing he knew he was flat on his back and everyone was yammerin’ on about how Barranca was going to have his balls cut off. Then, he tries to stop that, and he’s flat on his back again with…
“How long ‘til Sam says I can get up?”
Scott was leaning back in the chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him; crossed at the ankles. “You can’t be serious.” Fingers tipied in front of his nose, he reconsidered his answer. “You and Barranca are facing the same recuperation time.” He nudged his brother’s shoulder. “Call it fate, considering.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he nailed his brother with his best Madrid glare. “Considerin’ what?”
The blond seemed to be contemplating his answer. “Considering that, in your misguided attempt to save Barranca’s balls,” he eyed his brother, “you almost lost yours.”
Johnny did a double-take when he heard the word balls come out of his brother’s mouth. The shock was so great he nearly missed the part where Scott said you almost lost yours. This time when he made a grab under the quilt, Scott didn’t catch him. As soon as his hand made contact, he regretted the move. “Holy shit!” His breath came in short pants.
“Tender?” Scott’s voice was laced with sarcasm. A sudden, sharp rapping on the door jamb drew his attention. He looked up, smiling at the familiar figure in the doorway. “Val,” he greeted.
The lawman nodded a hello. “Scott.” A sly grin creased the man’s cheeks as his gaze swung to the younger Lancer. He stepped into the room. “Johnny.” Hat in hand, he approached the bed. “How you feelin’, boy?”
Johnny didn’t miss the boy. “Fine.”
Val laughed. “Sure you are.” Between the two black eyes and the stitched lip, Johnny looked like the bottom of the pile in a whorehouse brawl. The lawman smoothed his moustache. “About as fine as that horse of yours.”
That got the younger man’s attention. “You been out to the barn?” Jesus, he hated being busted up and stuck in bed.
Scott exchanged a covert look with the sheriff and gave a subtle nod.
“Barranca’s in a hell of lot better shape than you are,” Val replied. Now. There was no point in telling the younger man what Sam had discovered: that Barranca turned out to be a ridgling. What should have been a routine castration had taken a serious turn when the physician had to probe for an undescended testicle. The surgery had left the horse sluggish and a lot less fractious than usual. “Should make him a hell of a lot easier to handle next time you bring him around one of my mares.”
Johnny bridled at the censure. “Fu…” The word died on his lips when he saw Val’s right eye begin to twitch. He’d seen that look a time or three in his past and knew he had crossed the line. “Getting’ kinda tired here,” he sniped. If he could have, he would have turned his back on both men. Instead, he simply closed his eyes.
He heard Val leave; knew that Scott had walked with him to the bedroom door. He heard the retreating footsteps and then the tread of feet on the stairs. Great, he thought. Sucking in his bottom lip, he shifted a bit in the bed. It hurt, but, Hell; he’d had worse. Screwing his eyes shut, he concentrated on inching his way closer to the edge of the bed. One way or the other, he was gettin’ out of this bed and out to the barn; to Barranca.
“Going somewhere?” The deep baritone voice cut into the silence.
Shit! “Goddammit, Scott, how many times I got to tell you? Don’t do that!”
Scott was leaning against the doorjamb, his arms folded across his chest. He had a thick book tucked under his arm. Still frowning, he shoved himself away from the oak door frame and headed for the chair.
“Laudanum,” Johnny begged. Anything but his brother reading to him again.
The blond ignored the entreaty. “I think you’re going to find this little tome very interesting,” he began. “I picked it up when I was in Europe -- Rome, actually -- and it’s in the original Latin, and full of interesting historical tidbits.”
The last time Johnny had been this sick to his stomach was when Murdoch made him eat haggis. “Don’t understand Latin,” he lied.
Scott nailed him with a pitiless look that would have made a Mother Superior proud. “You’re Catholic, Johnny. You spent time in various mission schools and attended Mass.” He smiled then, but the warmth didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ll translate.” He flicked the book open, and -- pretending to read -- used his forefinger to scan the table of contents. “Aha. Here’s an interesting entry.” There was a fluttering sound as he flicked to the appropriate page. “Castrati.” He started to read aloud, verbatim, and changed his mind. A synoptic version would be better, he decided; his synoptic version anyway. Closing the book, he turned to face his brother. “Did you know, Johnny, that throughout history it has been a tradition in many cultures to not only castrate male animals, but also human males; and it’s still occurring?”
Johnny assumed this was one of those questions his brother didn’t want answered. Scott had a habit of tossing them around and not waiting for a reply; like are you insane, brother? or and you are defying our father why? So he waited. Scott remained silent. Giving up, he said, “No, Scott. I didn’t know there were some assholes runnin’ around out there cuttin’ off people’s cajones. And why would I give a shit?” This time, he didn’t want an answer.
Scott came forward in his chair. “It was done for a variety of reasons,” he announced, ignoring the causticity in brother’s tone. “Rulers who kept concubines, or large harems, would create eunuchs as guards. Armies castrated some soldiers on the assumption it made them more dedicated to their profession. And…” he was tapping the book with his fingers, “…the Catholic Church routinely emasculated young boys who were singers to insure their voices remained pure.” He leaned in towards his younger brother. “Tell me, Johnny; on those random occasions you ended up in one of the missions you’ve told Murdoch and me about did anyone ever try to recruit you for the choir?”
Open-mouthed, Johnny stared up at his sibling. “Hell, no! I didn’t stick around long enough to do nothin’ except maybe get a hot meal and a bath, and then I was outta there!” His expression changed as he came nose to nose with his brother. The fingers of his left hand galloped across his brother’s forearm like a wild horse. “Never been in the same mission twice,” he bragged. “Bastards could never catch me once I took off."
Walked right into it, little brother, Scott mused, mentally patting himself on the back. “I’m going to tell you another reason human castration occurs, hermano. For the same reason Murdoch and I decided it was time for Barranca to be gelded: to put an end to unruly behavior and tendencies to run off in search of trouble.”
Johnny waited for his brother to say more, but Scott said nothing. “So just what is it, you’re tryin’ to tell me, brother?” he drawled.
Scott stood up and dropped the book he had been holding on Johnny’s midsection. With both hands, he held it in place against his brother’s stomach. “That if you continue to misbehave and keep attempting to run off, brother,” he raised his right hand, forming a pair of scissors with his fore and index and making a snip-snip motion, “I’m going to personally pay Sam to perform another surgery when he comes out here tomorrow to check on your progress.” He pulled himself erect. Reaching out, he laid his palm against the youth’s forehead; immediately sensing the heat. “Time for some of Maria’s tea,” he announced, “and another dose of medicine for the pain.”
Johnny shrugged away from his brother’s touch. He knew the fever had come back, and he was hurting. But to confess he felt like shit was not how it worked. Admitting you were vulnerable was a sign of weakness, and Johnny Madrid was not weak. “Don’t need it,” he muttered, his head rocking back and forth.
Scott was already heading for the door. He paused long enough to address his brother once again. “Someday, Johnny, I’m going to have to explain the difference to you between need and want.” His tone changed as he slipped into the Lieutenant Lancer mode. “You will take the medicine, and you will drink the tea.” Raising his right hand, he made the scissors move again. Snip, snip.
From his place on the bed, Johnny stared hard at his brother’s disappearing back. For all the talk about the ‘Madrid mask’ and how -- in Scott’s opinion -- easily it slipped into place, big brother was pretty damned good at assuming his own other face. Trouble was, Johnny thought, he wasn’t always sure when Scott was playing the game or dead serious.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch watched as his elder son came down the stairs. There was a jauntiness to the younger man’s gait; something the tall Scot hadn’t seen since Johnny’s recent escapade and the new round of injuries. “I take it your brother is feeling better?” he asked.
Scott’s smile illuminated his face. “He will be, once he’s had his cup of willow bark tea and a small measure of laudanum.” The smile grew. “Perhaps if you took it to him, sir?”
A rush of air came as Murdoch exhaled. “Val said he was in a peevish mood, Scott. I’m not sure I can deal with much more of his insolence; or that mouth.” He forced a smile. “I think it would be wiser if I waited until he’s recovered.”
The blond was not about to be put off. No, opportunities like this were few and far between. He almost danced away from his father. “Trust me, sir,” he piped. “My little brother has had a profound change of attitude; an epiphany so to speak!” With that, he disappeared through the kitchen door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stood back and watched the expression on his brother’s face as their father entered the room. Murdoch was carrying the tray Maria had prepared, a steaming cup of the notoriously bitter willow bark tea, a teaspoon and the familiar brown bottle. Johnny was sulking.
“You’re brother tells me you’ve decided to be more co-operative about taking your medicine, John,” Murdoch said, doing an admirable job of keeping the doubt out of his voice.
Johnny’s gaze shifted from his father, to his brother. “Yeah,” he ground out. “No problema.” The fingers of his left hand were tapping across the cover of the book Scott had left on his bed. His brother had lied about it being written in Latin; the book was in fucking English, and there were pictures of the operation; detailed, pain-producing, prick puckering drawings.
Scott, standing directly behind his father, was covertly making the snip-snip move again with his fingers. “I think this would also be a good time, little brother, to apologize to our father for your earlier verbal transgressions.”
Johnny’s pout would have reached to his knees if they hadn’t been covered by the blanket. Focusing his gaze on a spot on the wall just above his father’s head, he ground out the brief apology. “Sorry, Murdoch.”
The big man smiled. It seemed Scott was right. The boy was actually trying to make amends. “Drink?” he asked, handing off the cup of tea.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It never failed to amaze Sam Jenkins how rapidly Johnny Lancer bounced back from injuries that would have killed a lesser being. Here they were, a week and two days out from -- what did Scott keep calling it? -- the incident and the youth was, except for the still fading bruises, completely back to normal. Whatever normal was in the Lancer hacienda.
The boy was also still not speaking to him.
“What’s the verdict, Sam?” Murdoch asked. Against Johnny’s wishes, he had remained in the room during the entire examination.
“Other than he appears to have become mute?” Sam retorted. He began packing up his supplies. “He’s fine, Murdoch.” He hesitated. “Short work days for another week, and then back to his regular routine.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny had survived the week of scaled back activity, and was now into his regular routine: sneaking off into Green River, someplace he had been told he could not go; not on a week day. But he was on a mission.
"Nemo me impune lacessit". He whispered the words, remembering what Murdoch had told him when he had seen the words on a coat-of-arms in one of his father’s books. "No-one harms me without punishment," Murdoch had translated. “Scotland’s national motto.” Ranks right up there with ‘do it to them before they do it to you’, the youth mused. He frowned. Scott had sure learned that lesson pretty fuckin’ good.
Granted, big brother hadn’t caused him any physical pain. But Scott had put him through hell for the past couple of weeks with all his snip-snip shit. And, Johnny reminded himself, he had also been the deciding vote on Barranca’s deballing.
It was payback time. Johnny was standing at the counter in the rear of Baldemero’s mercantile; the place where the señor stocked his supplies of patent medicines and powders he often ordered for Sam Jenkins. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but there had to be something he could find to cause his brother some major discomfort, something he could mix with the maple seed pods he had collected and not raise Scott’s suspicions. He couldn’t kill his brother, of course; that would only get the Old Man pissed off, and that dark land was someplace he really didn’t want to go.
And then, like a gift from God, it happened.
“Hey, Johnny!” Cord Bishop, the local Wells-Fargo agent, strode through the store. He was hefting a box in his right hand. “Saw Barranca out front; figured you were in here.”
Johnny wiped at the smile that was toying on his lips with the back of his hand. Ol’ Cord wasn’t the brightest candle on the Christmas tree, but he occasionally managed to get things right. “Yeah, Cord?”
“Package came in for Scott.” He rattled the box and held it up to his ear, a slow grin lighting his chestnut eyes. “It’s makin’ music!”
Johnny canted his head. Sure enough, the soft tinkle of a music box radiated from the containers interior. He grabbed the package before Bishop could give it another shake. “Whoa,” he called out. “Don’t figure on havin’ to explain to Scott why it’s all busted up, Cord.” He leaned towards the small man. “Don’t you worry none. I’ll make sure it gets home.” His teeth flashed as he gave the man his best you can trust me grin.
Cord nodded his head. “See you tonight?” When a small flicker of surprise marred the younger man’s face, he clarified. “That private poker game Scott and Reese Simmons got set up over to the Silver Dollar?” As if sharing a secret only he was privy to, he leaned in. “Hear tell that Rachel Fairchild is gonna be the dealer.”
Johnny’s head bobbed up and down. “Oh, yeah,” he drawled, “the poker game.” He gave the man a hearty pat on the back and pointed him towards the door.
Son-of-a-bitch, he thought. Scott hadn’t said one damned word to him about any poker party.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Señora Baldemero watched nervously as Johnny Lancer pried open the box which was clearly addressed to his elder brother. “Juanito,” she fretted, hands twisting at the hem of her apron.
Johnny had pretty much taken over the small table in the back room. He was taking his time. “Está bien, señora,” (It’s all right, ma’am,) he cajoled, flashing her a smile. “Apenas necesidad para estar que nada segura se rompe.” (Just want to be sure nothing’s busted.)
The interior of the box will filled with shredded fibres, stringy bits of something that seemed to expand as the top of the box was pried loose. Johnny suppressed a giggle as the packing seemed to take flight; bits and pieces flying around his head and tickling his nose. He sneezed; several times before he was able to stop. And then he dug into the small crate’s interior.
Sure enough, it was a music box. Johnny hoisted the delicate piece of porcelain out of the crate, an amused smile coming. There had been a chance -- hell, a fifty/fifty chance -- the box contained some small trinket for Teresa, something Scott did on occasion. But not this little do-dad, he mused.
Even Señora Baldemero was blushing. Hands over her mouth, she repressed a small cry and immediately left the room.
Johnny was examining the music box. It was round, with a convex exterior décor; painted ovals with delicate images rimming the entire circumference. But it was the top of the box that intrigued him most. He laughed. Cherubs; pink-cheeked and anatomically correct, naked little cherubs, entwined in a most unangelic pose. “Naughty, naughty,” he murmured.
Rachel Fairchild, Johnny mused. The gift was definitely for Rachel Fairchild.
He lifted the top of the box and was surprised to find a fluffy powder puff; and beneath the puff, a parchment topped box. With great care, he pried the container open. It was filled with a sweet smelling, finely milled powder, and it felt like silk beneath his fingers.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Life is good, Johnny thought. Here, in the quiet privacy of Baldemero’s back room, the seed of a plan had been nurtured and was beginning to sprout. Lifting his powder-coated fingers to his nose and taking a whiff of the sweet-scented talc; a wicked grin crawled across the handsome features of the youngest Lancer. What better revenge against his brother than to include Rachel Fairchild in the fandango? he mused. Let’s see how Miss Fairchild enjoys Scott Lancer’s LITTLE brother’s BIG idea.
Glancing about to make sure he wasn’t being watched, Johnny nervously licked his lips as he removed his bandana from his jacket pocket. His agile fingers made quick work of the knot that held the fabric closed. With the square of red cloth spread open, he poked the maple seedpods, wincing when one of the fine, hair-like slivers irritated his fingertip; the sensation not unlike the stinging bite of a piss ant.
Too bad Scott never stopped to think all that information he insisted on spouting off might someday come back to bite him in the ass. Yep. Big brother is goin’ to be real sorry he shared all that crap while he was borin’ the hell out of me readin’ his so-called educational shit. ‘Enlightening’, my ass.
It was in the middle of one of those unwanted teaching sessions when Johnny had asked his brother an innocent question about those bug looking things that were spiralling down from the maple tree he could see from his bedroom window. The only reason he had asked was to stop the recitation of the book about some guy with a dead bird hanging around his neck.
Scott had immediately closed the book and launched into a lecture about various tree types: evergreens, deciduous, and conifers, as well as how their seeds were spread. In his eagerness to impart some of his vast knowledge to his little brother he had included the most interesting tidbit of how the whirligig, or dried maple seed pod, was the main ingredient of itching powder. He had described in detail how the tip of the pod was a fine hair-like protrusion that was so abrasive it caused intense itching. The lecture had also included an intricate explanation of not only the various methods for harvesting them, but even how they were processed.
Originally, when Johnny had arrived in town, he had planned to slip into Sam’s office and grind the seeds he gathered into a powder with the doctor’s mortar and pestle; then move on to Baldemero’s to find something at the mercado to mix it in. Something he could take home and surreptitiously sprinkle in his brother’s sheets.
Doc, who Johnny was still not talking to because of Barranca’s castration, had been in his office; blowing the first part of that plan all to hell. Johnny had covertly watched the physician for a time through a window, hoping he would be called away, but it didn’t happen.
Scott’s package, however, provided the perfect opportunity to carry out not only revenge against his brother; but to pay back Miss Fairchild for all her teasing. All he needed now was the slivers off the tip of the pods. He thought about rubbing them together; then -- sucking a bit on his already damaged finger-tip -- changed his mind. Damn! Sucking in the right hand corner of his lower lip and frowning in deep concentration, he looked around for inspiration.
He saw it then, an open crate of machine-lathed pepper grinders and matching salt mills. Johnny chortled and fairly danced across the room to retrieve one of the pepper mills; his busy fingers working the small, mechanical crank. He turned it over, scoping out the multi-holed strainer. It would be perfect, he decided. Insert seed pods; turn crank, and whoopee…itching powder!
The excited chattering of people in the front room of the store immediately drew the youth’s attention; drawing him back to the here and now. Pepper grinder firmly gripped in his right hand, he made his way over to the door and peeked around the edge; relieved to see Señora Baldemero was busy helping Mrs. Brady searching through the selection of children’s shoes. He smiled. Mrs. Brady had six kids and she was a picky customer. Señora Baldemero was going to be busy for a long, long time. He gave a subtle, unseen nod to harried mother. God bless you and your many kids, lady.
Sauntering back to the table where he had unpacked the music box, Johnny opened the pepper grinder. Picking up a hand full of the whirligigs he dropped them in. Damn, I should have put my gloves on; these little fuckers hurt! Briskly, he rubbed his hands on the back of his pants to stop the stinging and itching sensation; not the wisest move under the circumstances as he felt a mild prickle. Then, concentrating on his task, he removed the clean white hanky Murdoch Lancer insisted his sons carry at all times -- the Old Man and Maria both had a thing about hankies and clean underwear without holes -- he spread it out on the tabletop.
The grinding of the seeds sounded awfully loud in the quiet of the back room. He was thankful it only took a few twists of the top before the finely grated slivers sifted out onto the cloth. Gently shaking the wooden canister to redistribute the seeds, he gave the mill top a few more quick turns. The light coming through the window illuminated the iridescent particles as they floated down onto the white linen; and he repeated the process until there was a small mound in the center of the handkerchief.
Carefully opening the music box and removing the parchment lid covering the powder, Johnny lifted the hanky by the corners. Forming a small trough, he held the cloth over the container and gently shook the contents into the powder. The ground up seed pods were ash grey against the talc, but a few quick stirs with his knife blade effectively concealed them within the powder.
He was just about to close it all back up when he heard one of Mrs. Brady’s daughters call across the store to her mother that they needed some powdered alum to pickle their late season cucumbers. Johnny made a face as he thought about the bitter concoction; wondering how something that made your lips feel like they were tied in a knot could turn a cucumber into a pickle; which Maria somehow managed to turn into a delicious relish. His lips puckered in remembrance of the first time he had sampled the stuff in Maria’s kitchen after the woman had warned him not to; and another wicked plan instantly came into his mind.
Scanning the canisters of spice stocked in the store room he quickly found a glass container of Rumford powdered alum. Working the cork loose, he sprinkled a portion atop the perfumed powder. Then, carefully replacing the parchment paper topper, he shook the box until he was certain everything was mixed. His next move was to put everything back as it had been. He snickered as he repacked the music box, thinking about how Rachel’s cleavage was always dusted in some floral or musky scented powder.
Scott, he knew, was a breast man. And he was forever going on about… Johnny sighed. Maybe it was time for big brother to learn about being careful just where he put his lips.
With a little effort he was able to return the package to exactly how it had looked when it had arrived. If he played it right, Scott would never know. Cleaning his mess up from the table, he wrapped the used peppermill and Rumford bottle in his bandana and slipped it into his pocket. Grinning, he dropped a silver dollar on the table and took his leave.
Strolling out of the backroom, the package carefully cradled against his side under his left arm, Johnny tossed the Señora one of his most brilliant smiles. “See, just as good as new,” he called and canted his head towards the box. When she returned the smile he addressed her again, the words coming softly. “I left you a dollar on the table back there, ma’am. Thanks for the use of the room.”
Exiting the mercantile, Johnny was preoccupied with planning how to deliver Scott’s package without arousing his brother’s suspicions. His older brother had gotten really good at reading his face when he was up to mischief. He stepped down from the store porch, almost into the path of one of Lancer’s wagons.
“Mind out,” shouted the wagon driver, as he pulled sharply on the reins.
Startled, Johnny looked up and scurried backwards; his spurred heel catching under the bottom step. Juggling the package, he quickly sat down on the top stair; his compact rump slapping against the boardwalk.
“Sorry, Johnny,” Frank called out; blowing out a slow breath of relief that the accident had been avoided. The last thing he would want to do is explain to the Boss he had run over his youngest son. Murdoch Lancer was notoriously protective of his sons. Jumping down from the seat, he offered his hand to the young man.
“I’m okay, Frank. Just sat down to keep from fallin’,” Johnny grinned. He took the man’s proffered hand and stood up. “What are you doin’ in town?”
“Boss man sent me in with a supply list,” he answered, pulling the paper from his pocket and waving it at Johnny. “According to him, his boys are eating him out of house and home.” Frank chuckled, recalling the look of amusement and affection when the Patrón had handed him the list.
“Well, you better get to it. You know how the Old Man hates lolly-gagging,” Johnny teased. He turned serious for a moment. “Hey, Frank, about me bein’ in town…”
Frank scratched his nose; hiding the smile. Johnny’s inclination to do what he had been told or dared to do or not do was becoming legend among the hands. His mischief was a great diversion from the tedium of ranching. “Haven’t seen a thing,” he said. Without another word, he bounded up the three steps to the store’s front porch and disappeared inside.
Cautiously looking up and down the street to see if anyone was watching, Johnny slipped to the side of the wagon and grinned at seeing supplies from the feed and grain in the back. Proud of himself, he rearranged a few of the items; and then nestled Scott’s package in beside a box of roofing nails and a can of axle grease.
Whistling the same tune the music box had played, The Joy of Love, Johnny casually sauntered down the street towards the saloon. He could see it now; Jelly unloading the wagon and toting the box into the hacienda, making a big deal out of hand delivering the box to Scott. He smiled. A cool beer was in order; along with a secret toast to how much smarter he was than big brother. Revenge was so fuckin’ sweet.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Supper was served and eaten, and after dinner drinks enjoyed in the Great room and Scott still had not mentioned receiving a package. The silence only confirmed in Johnny’s suspicion that the gift was for Rachel Fairchild. However, curiosity was getting the best of the youngest Lancer, that and the urge for a bit of big brother baiting. Scott had excused himself earlier, citing he had an appointment in town (the bastard still hadn’t said anything about the poker game) and that he needed to get ready. Then, turning his glass upside down on the drink tray, he had headed up the stairs.
Twenty minutes later, when Johnny thought his father was totally absorbed in the Sacramento Times newspaper Frank had brought from town with the mail, the young man eased towards the arched doorway leading to the hall. He had just stepped up into the tiled portico when he felt the familiar warm crawl at the back of his neck.
“What are you up to, young man?” Murdoch asked, his tone sounding flat, tired and all knowing.
Startled, Johnny grabbed the door frame to steady his self and placed his other hand over his heart. “Jeez, you ‘bout scared the skin off me.” How the Hell, does he do that? It feels like he’s readin’ my mind as easy as his fuckin’ newspaper. He turned back to face his father, his face radiating innocence. “I’m not up to anything, Pa. I was just goin’ upstairs to ...uh...get my boots to polish ‘em.”
Lowering his paper, Murdoch arched his eyebrows above his glasses frames, pinning Johnny with a severe look. “Perhaps I would feel guilty for asking that question if you hadn’t given the answer you just did. You never polish your boots until I threaten you.” Rattling the paper as he raised and straightened it, he added, “However, I’ll take you at your word. While you’re at it, get your Sunday boots -- and mine -- and do them as well.”
Resisting the desire to stomp off, Johnny settled for silently mimicking his father’s orders as he trudged up the stairs, his head rocking back and forth in time to the whispered words. Once he reached the top of the stairs, he made a beeline for his brother’s room. Tip-toeing the last few steps, he gently eased the door open just a crack and peeked in. Scott was standing in front on his dresser, fastidiously combing his ash blond hair into perfect order.
“Come on in, little brother. There’s no need to spy,” Scott called out, setting his brush down and picking up a bottle of aftershave. No point in not asking him in; closed doors mean nothing to the boy. He pulled the stopper on the bottle and shook some in his hand. A musky orange and cedar scent with a hint of cinnamon and vanilla filled the air as he slapped it on his cheeks and rubbed it down the long column of his neck.
“Where you headed all spit polished and shined up like a new twenty dollar gold piece?” Johnny asked as he moved next to his brother and flicked at his shirt collar. Reflected in the mirror, he could see the ribbon wrapped gift box that was sitting on the foot of the bed.
Slapping at Johnny’s busy hand and then smoothing his starched collar back down, Scott smiled; the teasing evident in his pale eyes. “That’s for me to know, and you not to find out!” He tapped his brother’s nose with a rigid forefinger.
Instinctively, Johnny backed away; pretending to lose his footing as he stumbled backwards towards the big double bed. In a repeat of a move he had made on that first day, he tumbled across the mattress. This time when flipped onto his butt, he was holding the wrapped gift box. “For me?” he crowed lifting the carton and giving it a shake. He immediately recognized the weight of the porcelain box, as well as the sweet, lazy tinkle of the spin-wheel mechanism.
“Give me that,” Scott ordered, crossing over to his bed and snatching the box from Johnny’s hands. A small tussle occurred as Johnny refused to let go.
The struggle increased as Johnny was pulled partway to his feet. Perched precariously on the edge of the mattress, Johnny lost the battle with gravity and tumbled towards the floor. Grappling at the nightstand to keep his footing, he knocked a glass from the bedside table. The tumbler and his butt hit the oak flooring at the same time, a grunt sounding as air whooshed from his lungs; the glass shattering with an explosive sound that carried far into the hallway and beyond.
“Boys! What’s going on up there?” Murdoch’s bellow seemed to shake the rafters.
“Whooee, you done it now, big brother,” Johnny taunted, scooting away from the shards glittering against the dark wood around him.
Scott’s cheeks stained red as he clenched his teeth. He was in no mood for Johnny’s antics. He had an urging that needed tending to in town and he had no intentions of using his hand to take care of it. “No, you’ve done it,” he protested, his eyes narrowing as he shook a finger beneath his brother’s nose, “and you better clean it up.” Gift box in hand, he marched towards the door; turning back to score another direct hit. “You know Murdoch’s rules about touching things that don’t belong to you.” His voice lowered ominously. “Don’t make me have to tell him.” Exiting the room, he pursed his lips and began to whistle; the same melody that the music box played: Plaisir d’amour, and perfectly in tune.
Johnny waited until he heard the thud of Scott’s tread on the stairs to snicker; the sound of his brother’s piping fading into the distance. Yeah, you just keep on whistlin’, brother. You’ll be puckerin’ up again later tonight, but it sure in hell won’t be for the joys of love.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny had cleaned up the broken glass. Figuring it would be better if Scott had to explain the shards of crystal, he dutifully dumped the refuse in the wicker basket besides his brother’s writing desk. Then, bored, he wandered down the stairs and into the Great Room.
Murdoch was settled in his great chair beside the fireplace; his feet propped up on the ottoman, a book resting against his thighs. He looked up as he heard a familiar whooshing sound and then the light footfall of his younger son as Johnny’s sock clad feet hit the tiles. Putting down the book, his gaze settled on the doorway, a grin coming as his youngest boy dropped down into the room. “I take it you’ve finished with your chore?” he asked amicably. Doubt creased his forehead as he saw the blank look on his son’s face.
“Chore?” Johnny echoed. Then it dawned on him. “Oh, yeah. The boots.” He nodded his head. Not in affirmation of a job done; but in a simple acknowledgement that he had remembered. Which, since he hadn’t voiced a ‘yes’ made it not a lie. Working his way into the room, his fingers danced across everything he passed; the end of the book case, the large dining table, a chair, the back of the couch.
Murdoch closed his book, but left it resting in his lap; a bent finger marking his place between the pages. “I’m surprised, son, you’re still home; here in the house. It is Saturday night.”
Johnny was standing behind the couch, debating if he should hoist himself up over the back to take his seat, or if he should walk around the arm and sit down proper. He decided to compromise; moving to the end of the couch and mounting the arm side-saddle before slipping down to the cushions. He looked up when his father sighed. “Nothin’ to do,” he said, sounding perfectly miserable.
“Now, son, I don’t want you sulking about just because your brother has chosen to go off into town on his own.” He waited for a response and when none came continued on. “We’ve had this discussion before…”
“Aw, that ain’t it, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted, raising a hand. “I got it about Scott needin’ time with Reese; like when I go off with the twins.”
Murdoch took a deep breath as he considered his son’s words. Johnny going off with the twins was nothing like Scott going off with Reese Simmons or, lately, Val Crawford. He decided not to voice that opinion. He also wasn’t quite sure he wanted to ask the question, but he did. “And the twins haven’t come by asking you to do something with them?”
Johnny sunk lower on the couch, almost disappearing into the cushions. “Old Man…Mister Simmons caught the twins swimmin’ up at the Ribbon when they was ‘sposed to be with the plowin’ crew in that new field where he’s figurin’ to plant corn. He’s got ‘em pickin’ rock.”
There was a long moment of quiet between father and son. Murdoch was the first to speak. “Well, you usually play cribbage with Jelly,” he observed, “if Scott or Teresa aren’t about; or checkers.”
“Harrumph.” Johnny cleared his throat, his tone disgusted. “Seems Jelly’s got it in his head he likes playing with Cip now; says Cip don’t annoy him with talk and stupid distractions.”
There was no way Murdoch was going to step into that one. He lifted the book from his lap and put it on the table to the left of his chair. His right eye twitched a bit as he brought up the next. “It’s not as though you haven’t gone into town on your own before, you know.” He was fishing. Johnny had missed breakfast, and he had been late showing up for work assignments.
Johnny cringed. “Frank told you he seen me in town this mornin’,” he sighed.
Murdoch palmed his face, hiding the smile. “No, son; it was a lucky guess.” He decided to let it ride. After all, Cipriano had said the boy had joined up with the field crew and had worked hard to make up for his lost time; and had still made it home in plenty of time for dinner. “Get the cards, son,” he said, levering himself up out of the leather chair. “Since it appears I am your only resource for entertainment this evening, we might as well make it worthwhile. What do you say to a penny a point?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott Lancer had arrived in town early after a leisurely ride from Lancer. Murdoch -- and, more importantly, Maria -- had agreed to an early dinner in consideration of his plans; which put him a half hour ahead of schedule. And, the poker game wasn’t slated to start until eight.
He smiled. Rachel and he usually celebrated after the card games, which always ended promptly at midnight. Ah, yes. A quiet, late repast; some good wine or the occasional bottle of vintage Champagne… But tonight, he was actually arriving in town early. That created a unique opportunity for some fun before the gambling.
Stabling his horse, Scott retrieved the package from his saddle bags, and headed out. He crossed the street, hopping up onto the boardwalk and heading for the alley between the general store and the Silver Dollar. As was his usual practice on poker night, he headed up the covered back stairs. Rachel’s suite of rooms was at the back of the upper floor, and he had a key to her door.
He stepped into the darkened hallway and allowed his eyes to adjust. Then, smiling, he started down the corridor; the gift box tucked under his right arm. He straightened his tie when he reached Rachel’s doorway, and removed his hat and gloves. In spite of the fact he had a key, out of politeness, he knocked. Twice.
She was in a robe when she answered the door; a burgundy colored gown that highlighted her auburn hair and complimented her green eyes. “Why, Mr. Lancer,” she drawled; one hand rising to clutch at the collar of her robe, “you’re early.” Curtsying, she stepped back and opened the door full.
Scott stepped across the threshold. He backed against the door, shutting it. Bowing, he offered her the box. “For you, mademoiselle,” he whispered.
Rachel Fairchild loved presents; especially those from a certain tall and slender blond. Scott had a way of surprising her. His gifts were creative and not without thought: whimsical, sometimes, occasionally practical. And, every now and then when he was feeling a bit full of himself, slightly risqué.
Trembling with ill-concealed excitement, Rachel untied the bright red bow; letting the ribbon drop to the floor. A momentary frown marred her forehead as she shredded away the paper and spied the small crate. Without saying anything, she thrust it at the young man; smiling when he produced a small pen knife and pried open the lid. She snatched the box from his hands, digging into the packing. Her laughter was like the muted sound of crystal wind chimes.
Fingers stroking the ceramic angels, she tilted her head and stared up into the blond’s face. “Why, Scott Lancer,” she scolded, one eyebrow rising at the cherubs’ suggestive pose. “It’s simply…heavenly.”
Grinning, Scott reached under the music box and turned the small metal key; feeling resistance as the spring tightened. He let go, allowing the key to unwind. The Swiss movement performed flawlessly, the tinkle of the melody prompting Scott to gather the woman in his arms and waltz her towards the bed.
Coyly, Rachel ducked out from beneath the man’s arms. Intent on opening the music box, she squealed in delight as the sweet scent permeated the air.
Scott was rewarded with a quick kiss before the woman spun away again and turned back to her dressing table. She sat down on the padded bench; carefully prying the top from box of powder. Lifting her gaze to the mirror, she watched Scott’s reflection as she shook out the puff and dipped into the sweet-smelling talc. Taking her time, she began applying the powder; generously dusting her throat before opening her gown and patting a thin layer between and on her ample but perky breasts. She made no move to resist when the man came up behind her and began nuzzling her neck.
From his early youth, Scott had always been attracted to women who possessed attractive cleavage. He had been an eager explorer as an adventurous and physically precocious youth and was an accomplished lover by his late teens. His lovemaking was both tender and unhurried, something Rachel had found extremely satisfying.
Gently, Scott eased himself down on the wide bench in front of the dressing table; moving until he was face to face with the woman, who had turned sideways to accommodate him. He showered her mouth and chin with a series of quick kisses, working his way down to the hollow of her throat, and then lower. She was trembling now; her back arched slightly, head back; a low moan sounding as his lips found her left breast.
And then he began to sneeze. And the woman began to sneeze. They both began to itch; uncontrollably.
Unceremoniously, Rachel shoved the young man away; hard. Scott found himself sitting on the floor, his right hand massaging his right buttock; which had impacted hard with the uncarpeted oaken floor. Unable to stop the next series of sneezes, he made the mistake of moistening his upper lip with his tongue, which was tingling more than it had the first time he had sampled his father’s store of Scotch whisky. And the itching…
Rachel was on her feet; her hands swiping at her bosoms; which were now strawberry red. The more she brushed at her breasts, the more powder that scattered and haloed around her. The angry red rash seemed to be migrating north towards her throat, and she caught a glimpse of her own reflection; her eyes widening in horror. “Scott Lancer!” The words erupted from deep within her; guttural sounding.
Scott had to look at the woman twice to make sure she hadn’t transformed into Murdoch Lancer at full bellow. This time his error was to wipe at his eyes.
A loud shriek sounded; octaves higher than the first time she had called his name. “Scott Lancer, if you think this is some kind of joke, you are sadly mistaken!” The woman’s green eyes were flashing; the red in her cheeks as much from her anger as the reaction to the powder. To make her point, she stamped her right foot. She was in the full throes of a major hissy fit; the auburn curls that framed her face bobbing as she spoke. Reaching back to her dressing table, she picked up the music box and flung it at her companion.
The blond was scrambling to his feet and already backing away; his quick footwork saving him a major skull fracture. The ceramic top of the music box skimmed the side of his head. He raised both hands, using one to probe at the wound; his fingers coming away bloody. When he opened his mouth to scold the woman, the words he had planned on saying came out sounding like he was speaking a foreign, dead language.
Rachel was on the attack. She followed in Scott’s wake as he backed towards her bed, following after him as he executed a sharp turn and continued backing towards the door. Reaching behind his back, he twisted the knob; grateful the door swung outwards into the hall. Not that it was doing him much good. Rachel was now pounding on his chest with both fists. She relented only slightly as he dropped backwards down the first step; allowing him to regain his balance before she started in again. It mattered not one whit to the woman that her robe was secured by a single, rope type sash at her small waist; or that a considerable portion of her anatomy was on display.
A crowd had gathered at the foot of the stairs; all eyes gazing upwards as the battle continued. Val Crawford and Reese Simmons were at the bar, each holding a mug of beer; and both of them grinning like jackasses. Neither man knew what had started the argument; only that they were enjoying a free show. Rachel Fairchild was usually very discrete about what showed, and who was privy to the viewing. And right now there was a lot to view.
One of the Circle C cowboys let out a great whoop; followed by a pretty damned fair rendition of a rebel yell. He was rewarded with a dozen swipes at his head from Val Crawford’s Stetson; but it was too late. The free show was over.
As cool as a cucumber, but still seething, Rachel Fairchild gathered her gown around her body; her right hand clutching the collar at her throat. Head high, she speared the blond with a particularly venomous look. “Don’t you think for one minute this is over, Lieutenant,” she ground out the word, the southern drawl more pronounced than usual, “Lancer! The South shall rise again, and Ah will be leadin’ the way to her redemption!” For the second time in the space of just a few minutes, she stamped her foot. And then, pointing a long finger at the retreating blond, she cried, “The only good Yankee is a damn dead Yankee!” Auburn curls flouncing, she spun on her heel and marched back to her room.
The crowd parted as Scott Lancer stalked through the bar room and out into the night.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch wet the nub of his pencil with his tongue, mentally ciphering as he totaled up the score. “I make it to be twelve dollars,” he said; rechecking the addition. Hiding the smile, he dug into his vest pocket for his wallet.
Johnny hadn’t missed the significance of the amount. He also knew his father had been losing on purpose for the last several hours. Reaching out, he accepted the cash his father had pulled from his billfold, balancing it against his palm before folding the money and tucking it into his belt.
“You better count it,” Murdoch teased. They had come a long way from those first tense days.
“I plan to,” Johnny shot back without missing a beat. His face colored a bit as he looked directly into his father’s pale eyes.
Murdoch reached out; gently pushing the boy’s long bangs aside; out of the way. “You need a haircut,” he scolded.
The tender moment was brought to a quick and noisy climax as Scott slammed into the hacienda. The heavy oak door hit the plaster wall with an explosive bang and immediately bounced back towards the enraged man. He moved so quickly he was able to kick the door shut, midstride.
Storming into the Great Room, Scott’s dishevelled appearance caused his father’s mouth to drop open in shock. In his haste to rise, Murdoch’s glass of Glenlivet tumbled from his fingers and spilled onto the card table. The glass did not break, but Johnny was showered with the strong smelling brew. “Son,” Murdoch stuttered. His younger boy forgotten, the tall rancher crossed the room to stand before his eldest. He put out his hand to rest it on Scott’s shoulder, but reconsidered.
The younger Lancer son, already partially hidden by the shadows, had disappeared into the darkness beyond the open French doors.
Scott’s face and clothes were coated in a fine dusting of some sweet-smelling substance; and there was a large bruise with a small cut on his right temple. A thin trail of congealed blood snaked from the wound to his jaw. His hair was standing on end as though he had been scratching it continuously, and to prove that assumption he started digging viciously at his scalp with both hands. The pinched look of his face was acerbated by the tightness of his lips; which were drawn tightly together in what appeared to be the expectant pucker of an old maid stealing her first kiss. His entire body was twitching in agitation.
“Mares Monney?” he demanded; struggling to speak with lips that refused to work. He alternated slapping at his clothes to remove the powder and scratching at his exposed skin, red streaks showing through the spring tan.
“What?” Murdoch questioned as he backed away from the cloud of white that floated off Scott and towards him like a storm crawling across the mountains. He could feel the tingle of an itch starting on his hands and face, and a bitter metallic taste began to pucker his lips. The combination of his usually fastidious son’s perspiration and the musky floral scent reminded Murdoch of a funeral in a room filled with too many flowers.
“Ah med ‘mares Monney,’” Scott sputtered. “Ah’m mona mill mim, n moo man’t mop me!”
Curiosity -- the same kind that was forever killing the proverbial cat -- had gotten the best of the youngest Lancer boy, and like a moth drawn to a flaming candle, he eased back into the room. It was his first good look at his elder brother; and, he realized, a potentially deadly mistake. Gut instinct prompted him to turn tail and run.
It was too late. In a single, floor devouring stride, Scott crossed the room and grabbed his sibling by the nape of the neck; not one mote of regret in him as he also latched on to a hand full of dark hair. “MOO...MOO MID MHIS MOO ME!”
Certain he had just been scalped; Johnny wrenched free and hightailed back to the great outdoors.
Shaking his head and throwing caution to the four winds, Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arm and pulled him up short. “Wait, Scott,” he cajoled. “Let’s see if we can’t get you cleaned up. I don’t know what happened to you, but I have no doubt from Johnny’s reaction he was somehow responsible.” He shook his head. “Though only God knows how because he has been right here with me the entire evening.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch had lost count as to how many times Scott had disappeared beneath the water. There was a strange fascination in watching his elder son; who seemed to be able to hold his breath for an incredibly long time. Standing beside the bath tub; the big man counted before finally giving in and fishing his son to the surface.
Scott blew out a mouth full of water. His lips were finally returning to normal, and the itch had eased somewhat. He wondered what magic Maria had managed to create to make the bath water feel slippery, but he found himself not caring. Whatever it was, it appeared to be soothing his skin; if not his temper.
He made a mental note to find out what the housekeeper had used. If there was any hope of his ever seeing Rachel Fairchild again -- if he ever hoped to bed her again -- he was going to have to provide her with a cure. Amongst other things. Repentance, he knew, was going to be very expensive.
“Better?” Murdoch asked. He eased himself down onto the hard toilet lid; coming forward slightly to rest his elbows on his knees.
Scott splashed the now cool water across his face for what seemed the hundredth time. “You do know I’m going to kill him,” he muttered. Eyes narrowing, he looked up at his father. “Your son,” he reiterated; also for what seemed the hundredth time.
Murdoch sighed. “Just exactly what happened, son?”
The splashing sound ceased and the water stilled. Scott’s brow furrowed as he considered the possible answers. “Suffice it to say, sir, what I had planned as a particularly enjoyable interlude with…” he hesitated, “…with a friend, turned into a spectacular disaster.” He fingered the knot on his right temple.
“I thought you were planning a night of cards with Reese Simmons and Val,” Murdoch ventured, trying hard not to sound judgmental. Absently, he toed Scott’s clothes, which were in an uncustomary heap beside the tub.
There was, Scott knew, no way he was going to be able to confide completely in his father without resorting to several bald-faced lies. Raking his long fingers through his wet hairs he debated where to begin. “I purchased a gift for my…” he was fumbling again, “…my friend.” Once more, he avoided his father’s eyes. He wasn’t about to go into details. “A music box and some perfumed talc.”
Murdoch was shaking his head. Both his sons had healthy sexual appetites, sometimes too healthy; which often led to intense brotherly competition that almost always ended up getting out of hand. He was beginning to wonder if Barranca was the only young stud on the ranch that should have been gelded. Hiding a smile with an uplifted hand at the thought, he knew he would have to be content with only occasionally being able to hobble his boys. “I assume this gift was for one of the young ladies at the Silver Dollar,” he surmised.
Markedly relieved, Scott exhaled, the water rippling. “You assume correctly,” he said. “And somewhere between Green River and the time Jelly delivered the package to me in the Great Room, my brother…” he corrected himself, “…your son…got his hands on my property and did something.” Frustrated, he threw up his hands.
Murdoch pulled himself up and stretched. The water Scott had inadvertently splashed him with was cold. “You do know, Scott, even your brother is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And once that happens,” and he knew it would, “you will not be allowed to kill him.” He reached out, retrieving a warm towel from the stack Maria had brought up from the kitchen. He shook out the cloth and held it out.
Modestly prevented Scott from standing up. He took the proffered toweling and nodded towards the door. “If you’ll excuse me, sir,” he said.
Nodding, Murdoch took his leave. He opened the door and strode out into the hallway; hearing the sound of water splashing against the tiled floor as Scott stepped out of the tub. Life had certainly been a lot less complicated when his sons were still among the missing; even with Pardee in the mix. A great sigh escaped his lips; his entire body shuddering.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Ain’t happenin’,” Johnny declared, shaking his head. Hunched over the table, he helped himself to another piece of bacon; licking the excess grease off his fingertips. His packed saddlebags were hanging on the back of the chair.
Jelly Hoskins snatched the plate of side meat up off the table, smacking the younger man’s fingers when he reached for another helping. “Now, you listen to me, Johnny Lancer!” he scolded. “You know how partic’lar your Pa is about you takin’ your meals here in the cook shack like some…”
Johnny stopped mid chew of the thick slice of bacon. “Like some what…” he whispered, his tone matching his sudden shift in mood.
The handyman was having none of it. Shaking his finger at the younger man, he leaned in closer. “That ain’t goin’ to work, boy,” he huffed. “Hidin’ out in the barn last night, and figurin’ now on sneakin’ off up to the hills somewhere; knowin’ your Pa and your brother are lookin’ for ya…”
Johnny grinned up at the older man; but he was remembering something his brother had told him once about how, sometimes, hiding out in plain sight worked out really well. “Yeah.” Moving with the speed of a coiled rattler, he snagged a piece of meat and popped into his mouth. He stood up and slung his saddlebags over his shoulder. “And they can just keep on lookin’.”
The door to the cook shack suddenly swung open, a ribbon of early morning sunlight spearing the darkness. “Juanito.” Cipriano’s considerable bulk blocked out the sudden glare, plunging the room into twilight. The Segundo turned back into the sunshine, his voice rising as he called out to the others who were searching the yard and barns. “¡Aquí, Patrón! Está aquí!” (Here, Patrón, He is here.)
Johnny closed his eyes. His head dropped, his chin resting against his chest; eyes hidden by the fringe of dark hair. “Shit,” he muttered. “Shit, shit, shit!”
The next thing Johnny knew, he was being yanked to his feet and being dragged towards the door, his head firmly locked beneath his brother’s right arm. Scott was dragging him towards the front door of the hacienda.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Didn’t do it,” Johnny declared. His long hair was disheveled; curling above his ears from the sweat, and there was the beginning of a bruise beneath his right eye. He was seated in his usual chair in front of the old man’s desk; arms folded across his chest. “Ask the Old…Murdoch. I was here playin’ cards with him the whole night when you got yourself messed up.” He cut his eyes toward his brother. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself, blamin’ me for somethin’ I didn’t do. It’s gettin’ kind of old, ya know, you always tellin’ the…tellin’ Pa I done somethin’…”
Scott snorted in disgust. “Oh, please,” he muttered. “If I told Murdoch half the things you’ve…” Wisely, he stopped.
Murdoch’s eyes held a glint of humor as he surveyed his two offspring. As different in appearance as they were -- the tall, lean patrician blond and the compact more boy than man brunette -- the two shared traits that were markedly similar. Like now. Both boys were sitting with their arms wrapped around their upper torsos; fingers kneading the flesh just above their elbows.
A wry smile graced the older man’s countenance. Johnny’s self hug, he had learned, expressed a myriad of emotions: distress, frustration, a need to protect and withdraw into his self when he was unsure what it was his family wanted or expected. It was different with his elder son. Scott’s habit, he knew, was a recently acquired trait: one that had come in tandem with the knowledge he had a younger brother. It was as if Scott clenched his arms across his chest in a conscious effort to keep from strangling his new-found sibling; often with just cause.
Murdoch roused himself from his parental musings when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny slump down and scoot forward in his chair just enough to be able to kick his brother’s right foot. A severe frown marred the tall Scot’s face when, to his amazement, his normally mature elder son instantly retaliated. “Scott! Stop that, right now!”
Scott’s tan cheeks immediately colored and he pulled himself more erect in his chair. Johnny’s chin dropped against his chest, and it was clear from the way his shoulders were shaking he was laughing.
The single word was enough to stop the snickering. It was now Murdoch’s turn to lean back in his chair and fold his arms. He sat for a time, not saying anything, just staring at both of his sons; twirling his thumbs. It was also enough to make the young men squirm; which was his intention.
Scott was the first to speak. Smoothing his hair in place, he pulled himself erect; regaining his composure. “I realize this has gotten out of hand, sir,” he began. “But try as I may,” he drew the words out, skewering his younger brother with a hard glare, “I can’t think of one other person who would have the unmitigated gall to engage in such a thoughtless, diabolical…”
Johnny’s contemptuous phhht cut into his brother’s carefully enunciated declaration. “There you go again, pointin’ your bony finger at me…”
Murdoch raised his right hand, making a slashing motion. “Enough!” To emphasis his point, he thumped the top of the desk with a rigid forefinger. “I take it, Scott, your …friend…in town benefited from Maria’s potions?”
Without looking up, Scott nodded. Unconsciously, he scratched at a residual rash on his palm. His first chore after he had bathed was a quick trip into Green River. “Yes, sir,” he answered, hoping it would be enough and that this part of the conversation was over.
No such luck. Johnny canted his head in his brother’s direction. “Aww,” he commiserated with about as much sincerity as he would have expressed over a dead fly, “you got a sick… friend?” Visions of Rachel Fairchild applying the powder -- where she would apply the powder -- danced across his fertile mind: snowflakes dusting the twin peaks of some distant mountain range. Big mountains.
“Shut up, Johnny,” Scott seethed.
Realizing the situation was about to get out of hand -- again -- Murdoch intervened. “Scott,” he began. “Your brother was here when you experienced your…misfortune. Playing cards with me.”
Scott levered himself up out of his chair and stretched. He began pacing. “That night,” he said, raising his hand, his right forefinger pointing to the rafters. Turning, he faced his father; wisely dropping his hand to his side. “But where was he during the day?”
Johnny was on his feet now, too; concerned about where the conversation was going. “Right here,” he declared, jabbing a forefinger at the floor. “On Lancer, just like I was ‘sposed to be.” Cocky, he moved until he was nose to nose with his sibling. Well, considering the height, almost nose to nose. “Not off at some sportin’ house, hostin’ a private,” his voice rose, “PRIVATE pok-er game!”
The blond laughed. Using his height and the length of his arm to his advantage, he reached out and patted his younger brother’s head, ruffling the boy’s hair. “Private game for the grownups,” he scoffed, “not the resident juvenile delinquent.”
Murdoch shoved back his chair, the rollers squealing in protest at the sudden movement. He moved quickly around the desk, grabbing Johnny’s arm as the younger man took a swing at his brother’s head. “Sit down,” he bellowed. “Both of you!”
Murdoch perched himself on the front edge of the desk, his long legs, crossed at the ankles, resting between his sons’ chairs like a barricade. His arms were folded across his chest, and -- deep in thought -- he was frowning. “You were in town in the morning, John,” he said finally.
Johnny’s face radiated pure innocence. “Early, Murdoch, and just long enough for a quick beer,” he lied, his tone contrite. He stole a mournful look at his brother. “Hey. You know how I am ‘bout takin’ orders. You and the Old Man both told me I can’t go into town durin’ a work day…” He shrugged and flashed his most beguiling smile; the one that usually worked on everyone. “Made it back to work a full day,” he crowed. “Just ask Cip.” The smile grew. “And then me an’ the Old Man played cards.” Bigger smile. “Were still playin’ when you got home.” Feeling he was playing a Royal Flush against a straight he raised the stakes. “Hell, big brother, the only time I saw that present you had for your… friend, was up stairs in your room when it was all wrapped up; bow an’ everythin’.”
Although Johnny was doing a good job of building a case, Scott wasn’t quite buying it. His brow furrowed as he tried to reason the problem out; find some genuine logic in what had had occurred.
The front door opened and all three Lancers turned expectantly to gaze at the front hall. All they saw was a flurry of skirts and petticoats; followed by the familiar tread of Maria as the housekeeper went up the stairs. Staring at the ceiling, they tracked her movements above them with their eyes as she progressed a short distance down the hallway. Johnny grinned; relieved he was no longer the center of attention. Good old Maria, he thought smugly; always his sweet angel of mercy.
He heard his bedroom door open. Tap, tap, tap. The door slammed shut. Maria was coming down the stairs.
The housekeeper entered the room, stepping gracefully down from the foyer and moving directly towards the desk. Holding out her hand, she presented Murdoch with a slip of paper and some money; both coins and paper. She addressed the man in English, as if out of regard for his elder son; who understood more than he let on. But that was their little secret. “I settled the account at Baldemero’s, Patrón,” she announced, “as you instructed.” She hesitated, casting a suspicious eye at the younger Lancer son. “It was more than you expected.” Reaching into her skirt pocket, she took out a wooden object, and then a second one. The third item she took from her pocket was a corked bottle of Rumford Alum. “Señora Baldemero said to tell Juanito the dollar he left was not enough to pay for everything. The pepper grinder and the salt mill come as a pair -- she gave me the salt mill to bring home since he seems to have forgotten it. The bottle of alum was only fifty centavos.” She placed all three items on the desk; arranging them in a neat row.
Some fuckin’ angel of mercy, Johnny thought darkly; not missing how the woman had lined the objects up so they were directly in front of him. He mentally cursed himself for not remembering to get rid of the evidence.
Scott reached out and picked up both grinders, his eyes narrowing as he upended the mills. His gaze then swung to the small residue of flakes, stark ash white against the smooth, dark finish of his father’s desk. He chanced touching the material with his fingertip, immediately recognizing the tingling sensation. “Johnny…” The words came from between his clenched teeth.
Johnny had turned in his chair and was staring daggers at Maria’s back as the woman retreated across the room. He started to rise only to feel himself being pushed back into his seat.
“Start talking,” Murdoch ordered. “And I want the truth; all of it.”
So it tumbled out; all of it. Confession, Johnny thought, might be good for the soul, but it sure in fuck wasn’t going to save his ass. He finished the sorry tale with a final declaration that was, in his opinion, justification for what he had done. “Wouldn’t have happened if you,” he turned to face his brother, “hadn’t voted with the Old Man to cut off Barranca’s balls! And while I was passed out cold!!”
So much for logic, Scott mused. Well, normal logic. “Let me see if I have totally grasped your rationale for this perverse act of supposedly righteous retaliation.” The words were laced with sarcasm. “Because I had the audacity to agree with our father regarding the castration of a horse that has caused you injury on three,” he held up the appropriate number of fingers “three occasions that we know of, you decided I needed to be punished.” He scrubbed a weary hand across his face, slowly, his thumb and forefinger temporarily covering his mouth. But not for long. “Tell me, Johnny,” he asked, the words coming with great deliberation. “What Machiavellian scheme of revenge are you contemplating for Sam, since he did the deed, or for our father…?”
Johnny’s mouth lifted in a sardonic grin, his eyes narrowing as he came forward in his chair. Completely ignoring the remark about Sam, he focused on the other half of the voting team; his father. Forgetting where he was, and who was within hearing, he interrupted his brother. “Haven’t exactly got that one figured out, brother,” he murmured. “He got a special present for someone; Aggie Conway maybe?”
Murdoch cleared his throat; loudly. It was enough to bring his younger son back to the here and now. He was debating his next words. When the Patrón finally spoke it was like spring thunder rolling off the mountains. “There will be no more talk of revenge,” he declared. “Not against me; and certainly not against Sam.” He was towering over his younger son now, an ominous look on his face. It was clear from his expression he was plotting some quid pro quo of his own; parental vengeance for boyish mischief. His eyes narrowed. “Since your brother is the one most directly affected by your tomfoolery, I’m going to allow him to determine your punishment.” End of discussion. He shoved himself away from the desk and moved back to his customary place; standing at the arched window with his back to his sons and staring out across the vast landscape.
Scott’s face erupted in a broad smile. He was practically wringing his hands in glee. Johnny on the other hand looked like someone who had just been handed a small shovel and pointed in the direction of a barn full of cows in the full-blown throes of the scours. Here he was, knee deep in green shit and drowning. “Uh, Pa?”
Hands clasped behind his back, Murdoch was studiously watching his younger son’s reflection in the window. He answered him without turning around. “Yes?”
Johnny was furiously rubbing at his right thigh with the flat of his hand. He was about to say something he had never considered saying. “Think I’d rather be takin’ that walk to the barn for a conversation with you, Murdoch, than dealin’ with Scott.”
Murdoch still did not turn around; couldn’t, for fear the smile would betray him and he would be unable to stop the laughter. “Not today, son. As I said, it’s up to your brother to decide on how you will pay your due.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They were at the breakfast table. Murdoch was hiding behind the newspaper, but fully cognizant of his sons bickering. He had already determined how far he would allow the squabble to continue before he stepped in. So far, he was content just to listen.
“Thirty-six hours of rash and itching,” Scott itemized; “give an hour or two.” He smiled across as his brother. “I’m doubling that time, little brother. That’s how long you’re going to be working under my direct supervision.”
Johnny was doing some mental calculation: 36 * 2 = 72, divided by 24. “Three days!” he ciphered. “Three f… days?”
Scott had a notepad out and he was doing some computation of his own while talking aloud to himself. “There will also be some remuneration for damages,” he looked across at his brother, “repayment for money and items lost.” He actually smiled at his sibling. “I will consider some reasonable negotiation; perhaps even some trade.”
The brunette scowled. “Why don’t you just hold a gun to my head and ask me to give up my one third of the ranch,” he snapped. “Ain’t much good to me when you and the Old Man keep votin’ when I’m passed out cold!”
Rising to his feet, Scott placed the small notebook into his pocket. “I’m thinking today would be a good day do some maintenance and reorganization in the ice house.” He headed out of the kitchen and into the main hallway.
Johnny hated the cold, dank, near subterranean storage building. It stank of mud, damp canvas and wet straw. So while he appreciated a chilled glass of Teresa’s lemonade on a warm afternoon, or a cold glass of milk at supper; the ice house itself repulsed him. And Scott knew it. The youth was prepared to do anything to get out of the job; unfortunately he wasn’t armed. He turned to his father, who was still hiding behind the newspaper. “Murdoch,” he begged.
There was a rustling sound as Murdoch turned a page. “Go,” he ordered.
Johnny pushed back his chair so hard the sound was like fingernails scraping across a slate. “Thought that Lincoln guy freed the slaves,” he muttered. He heard Scott calling him from the front entranceway, and his voice rose. “I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” he groused. “Jeez!”
Teresa watched as her brother departed. “He’s going to find a way to get out of this, Murdoch,” she sighed.
Murdoch folded the paper and laid it down to the right of his fork. He picked up his cup and took a long sip of coffee. “Not this time, darling,” he smiled. “Scott spent last night organizing the troops.” His head canted as he realized Johnny was lurking just beyond the doorway, and when he resumed speaking, the volume had increased. “And if that doesn’t succeed, your brother will find himself dealing with me.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Three days of pure torment. Johnny Lancer was sure and certain his ass was dragging the ground with every step he took. It didn’t take him long to realize just how vindictive his older brother could be. Scott had actually offered the hands a cash bounty if he was caught straying or slacking off. And it wasn’t just with the outside chores. Nope. Big brother had persuaded Maria, Consuela and Teresa he was in need of constant herding, and they seemed to take a particular delight in tracking his every move when he was inside the house. He was actually surprised one of them hadn’t wiped his ass after a trip to the jake.
But the killer came on day three. Scott claimed he had something to take care of in Green River, and out of pure spite, he had left Jelly in charge. The old fart had him white-washing everything that wasn’t nailed down, including the rows of stones that lined the pathways leading to every outbuilding beyond the main house. Paintin’ fuckin’ rocks, for Christ’s sake!
His back was so sore the final night, and he was so dead-assed tired, he fell asleep sprawled across the Old Man’s ottoman. Murdoch had to wake him up to tell him to go to bed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“So do you think he’s had enough, son?” Murdoch asked. He was leaning against the door jamb of his elder son’s room, watching as the younger man finished buttoning his shirt. It was Saturday night, and his son was going out to play.
Scott turned from the mirror to look at his father. “Bent, but not broken,” he smiled. “I’m not going so far as to say he’s learned his lesson, but I believe he’s going to think twice before he decides to embark upon another prank.”
Murdoch smiled and shook his head. “Or think of something more devious,” he ventured.
“That, too,” Scott countered, as if he were looking forward to the possibility. “I’m taking him into town with me.”
Johnny, just arrived from his own room, eased in beside his father’s tall frame and poked his head inside the door. “Feelin’ guilty?” he teased.
“In your dreams,” Scott answered. “And you will behave.”
Murdoch moved out of the way, watching after his sons as they headed down the hallway. Peace, it seemed, had finally been restored.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He should have known something was up when Val was standing outside of the Silver Dollar when they arrived in town. Hooding his eyes with his hat, Johnny hoisted his right leg over the pommel, kicked his left foot out of the stirrup and slid from the saddle. As soon as his feet hit the ground, Scott’s arm was around his shoulder.
Scott pulled him close. It wasn’t some quick, brotherly hug. No, Scott had him in a headlock and was dragging him up the stairs.
“What the hell?” Johnny squirmed beneath his brother’s arm and knew the frustration of his sibling’s iron grip. The fact Val was grinning like a jack ass and was now swinging open the batwings -- the son-of-a-bitch actually had the balls to bow -- didn’t help. “Goddammit, Scott. Le’ go!”
Scott was shaking his head. “No.” He pulled his brother across the threshold. “You, little brother, are about to get lesson number one in the social graces. You’re going to learn the noble art of apology, and Rachel Fairchild is going to be your first, and I’m quite sure, most memorable encounter.”
Johnny tried putting on the brakes. It was a useless chore. Scott was dragging him further into the very bowels of Hell, and he could already feel the fire.
He looked up to see Rachel Fairchild at the top of the stairs. She was dressed to the nines, and her right foot was beating a steady tattoo against the floor; not a good sign.
Scott was going to pay, Johnny fumed as he was dragged towards the stairwell. It was just a question of when, and how fuckin’ much.