A Tale of Two Kitties . . .
The usual blah-blah-blah. Southernfrau is entirely responsible for all of this, good or bad. I just couldn’t help thinking what would prompt Scott to say: “Tell me again why I can’t kill him.”
Johnny grimaced as he squeezed through the front door. He had opened it just enough to avoid the squeak that would come if he pushed it all the way; a technique he had perfected when sneaking in or out.
This time he was sneaking in. He was wearing Scott’s new work jacket; the buckskin colored twill with the quilted lining. It was really too warm to be wearing such a heavy coat, but it wasn’t warmth he was interested in: it was the padding.
Holding the coat closed with his clenched right fist, he eased the door shut; resting his forehead against the heavy wooden panel. So far so good, he thought; more than a bit proud of himself. Yep. Just a few feet farther and he would be in his room and home free.
The young man closed his eyes. His head was still pressed against the door and he lifted it slightly and then banged it back again. Twice. His right hand was still clutching the front of his jacket, and he shifted slightly; replacing the right hand with his left. He used his right hand to grasp the doorknob.
“Don’t even think about it, son.” Murdoch Lancer stood behind his youngest boy, a bemused smile on his face.
“Not late,” Johnny said without turning around.
“I can see that.” The man’s lips were twitching now. Johnny was notorious for arriving late at the dinner table; something he did regularly and -- Murdoch thought -- all too often, on purpose.
Resigned, the younger man turned around. He was smiling; the familiar smile that Scott called his Cheshire cat smile. Val Crawford called it ‘Johnny’s shit-eating grin’. “Already washed up, too,” he announced, raising his right hand to display his clean palm.
“Yes.” Murdoch’s head canted to one side, his right eyebrow lifting. “Would you care to tell me, son,” he pointed at the younger man’s waist; at the lump beneath the jacket that seemed to be moving, “what you’ve got under your…” he corrected himself, “…Scott’s jacket?”
Fair question, Johnny thought. He reckoned it deserved a fair answer. “Nope.” Still clutching at his waist, he started past his father.
“Let me rephrase the question, John.” Murdoch reached out, catching his son’s arm. There had been nothing insolent in the younger man’s tone, but his attitude was a bit too cavalier for the older man’s liking. “What have you got under that jacket?”
“Hey, c’mon, Murdoch,” Johnny shrugged. “It’s no big deal. A man has a right to a few secrets, don’t he?”
“What’s not a big deal?” Just returned from the barn, Scott Lancer stood at the open front door. He stepped across the threshold and cast a quick look at his father; a second longer glance at his kid brother and then -- content they were not quarreling -- closed the door. “And why are you wearing my new jacket?” His eyes narrowed as he watched the lump at Johnny’s waist move up a bit higher on the younger man’s chest and swung to the right. There was a second bump trailing closely behind the other. “You haven’t brought home another stray dog have you?”
Johnny liked this question better than the one about the jacket. “Nope,” he answered, pleased he could tell the truth. He began backing towards the stairs.
Scott moved forward, keeping pace with his sibling as his brother backed up. Johnny’s penchant for bringing home strays -- people, dogs, cats -- was amusing for the most part, at least from Scott’s point of view. “Cat?” he asked, shaking a long finger at his brother and laughing.
Johnny’s mouth opened slightly, his tongue whispering across the inside of his upper lip and hesitating at the corner. Scott and his damned questions! He puzzled it over in his mind, still backing up; and debated his answer.
That was when all hell broke loose. He felt a pinch at his right shoulder, and instinctively swatted the lump that was snaking up towards his neck. “Shit!” he inhaled sharply, using both hands to grab at the now disjoined bumps. He regretted the move as soon as he made it.
The jacket opened to reveal two spitting bundles of pale, yellow-brown fur. Johnny was attempting to hold one of the animals out in front of him; a formidable task as the cub grabbed onto Johnny’s left fist with a vengeance. He tried backing away from the pain and stumbled on the bottom stair; landing on his butt as he went down.
Johnny let go of the cub, falling backwards as the animal clawed its way up his chest and headed up the stairs; the second cub following right behind. Quickly, the young man rolled over onto his belly and began scrambling after the small cats.
Stunned, Scott stared opened-mouthed at his father. “Was that…?”
Murdoch was already on his way up the stairs. “…a mountain lion cub,” he answered. He shook his head, holding up his right hand, his forefinger and middle finger forming a ‘V’, “…two cubs.”
At the top of the stairs, just coming out of Johnny’s room and carrying a full wicker laundry basket, Teresa stared down at her step-brother. He was scrambling up the stairs in pursuit of two small bundles of fur, vainly grabbing at the animals and missing. Screaming, the young woman backed up; completely astounded when the creatures ran between her legs, one of them clawing its way up her petticoat before letting go and scrambling for the darkness beneath the empty bed. The basket Teresa had been holding seemed for a moment to be hanging in the air above her head; along with assorted items of Johnny’s dirty laundry before everything dropped to the floor.
Amid the sudden shower of brightly colored but dirty clothes, Johnny dove again for the cubs, skidding on his belly across the wooden floor, his head disappearing briefly under the bed. Just as quickly, he scooted back; rising to his knees and sucking at the new wound on the back of his hand. Both cubs poked a single paw out from beneath the bed to take swipes at their pursuer; growling in displeasure as they connected with nothing but air.
Undeterred and totally ignoring his sister, Johnny dropped back down onto his hands and knees. “Here, kitty…” he crooned. He felt like a fool, but the technique worked with the barn cats. “C’mon…” Curious, one of the cubs actually stuck out its head. Tentatively, Johnny reached out.
Murdoch and Scott entered Johnny’s bedroom shoulder to shoulder, jockeying to get through the opening. Scott yielded and fell in behind his father, back-kicking the door and slamming it shut as soon as he crossed the threshold. The cub responded to the noise and immediately disappeared, slipping from beneath Johnny’s fingers and retreating back into the darkness beneath the bed.
“Thanks, Scott,” Johnny snapped, turning to glare at his brother. He stood up. And then it hit him. Teresa had actually stopped screaming. He turned to face her. “Wanna help?” he asked; giving her the smile. He nodded in the general direction of his bed.
Murdoch’s mouth dropped open. “No,” he said, eying both youngsters, “she does not.” Silently, he began mentally counting to ten; in his native tongue first, then in Spanish, and yet again -- for good measure -- in English. It wasn’t working. Reaching out, he pulled his ward away from her brother. “Mountain lion cubs, John?”
Johnny risked a quick look at his father. “Someone shot their mama,” he answered. Realizing the answer wasn’t what his old man was looking for, he tried again. Not that he wasn’t telling the truth. Part of it anyway. He cleared his throat. “Found the she cat up near the line shack above Cedar Creek,” he started. That part was the lie. He’d actually found her up at Black Mesa; a place he wasn’t supposed to be. “Somebody did a piss pour job of shootin’ her. She bled out. I found the cubs tryin’ to nurse.” That part was the truth.
Scott was now standing to his brother’s left and gave him a quick look. He’d spent the morning at the line shack above Cedar Creek repairing the roof. Johnny, contrary to Murdoch’s orders, had not been with him. “Near the line shack?” he asked.
The younger man frowned and shot a dark look at his elder sibling. “Yeah,” he answered. “Found her right after I got done helpin’ you fix the roof. Remember?” The last word sounded almost like a threat. Not that Scott was intimidated.
Never the one to pass up an opportunity for brotherly blackmail, Scott nodded. “Ahh, yes. Like you’re going to be helping me when we separate those shoats from that sow Jelly’s been trying to turn into a pet.” The pig was notorious not only for her bad temper and foul habit of wallowing in her own droppings, but for her protectiveness of her baker’s dozen litter.
Johnny’s mouth opened in protest, and then reconsidered. “Yeah. Whatever.”
The brotherly bantering stopped. Both young men recognized their father’s tone and immediately came to attention.
Murdoch was pointing a long finger at Johnny’s bed. What should have been an inanimate object seemed to be taking on a life of its own. The multicolored quilt was slowly crawling off the bed, as if intent on hiding in the darkness below.
Teresa was the first to speak. “Johnny!! Maria and I just finished mending that quilt!” Johnny was constantly lying down on the bed without taking off his spurs.
Mesmerized, and -- for once -- almost speechless; Johnny stood watching in awe as the blanket continued its slow descent. He could hear the two kits growling as the down coverlet made its slow journey down the side of his bed. And then he heard it; the purr-like growling becoming a series of snarls as the cubs began to fight over their prize.
Angry, Teresa stomped her foot; caution going to the wind as she heard the distinctive sound of cloth being shredded. “Oh, no! I worked on those stitches for hours! Days!!” Resolute, she headed across the room, intent on rescuing the quilt before it was torn to bits.
Murdoch reached out, grabbing his ward around the waist with one arm and lifting her off her feet. He swung her aside. “Just because your brother--” he swung an ominous eye towards his youngest “-- hasn’t the good sense not to play with wild things doesn’t mean I’m going to allow you to be so foolish.”
The snarls were growing in intensity; an unseen tug of war going on as the cubs fought for supremacy. More tearing noises came from beneath the bed as feathers began appearing; the goose down skittering across the floor and lifting briefly as a soft breeze from the partially open window whispered its way across the room.
Scott stole a quick look a Teresa; another at his father. Teresa’s right eyebrow had almost disappeared into her hair line, and their father’s face was a fascinating shade of purple. He jabbed his elbow into his brother’s side in an attempt to get the younger man’s attention. “I don’t know about you, little brother, but I have the feeling we are about this far,” he whispered, making a gesture with his thumb and forefinger, only a miniscule amount of space between the digits, “from a major crisis with Murdoch. We need to get those cubs out of here.”
“We?” Johnny asked, hopeful.
Grudgingly, Scott nodded. “We.”
Johnny was slipping his arms out of the jacket he was wearing. Wisely, he kept it half-folded. The cubs had done a pretty good job of tearing up the inner lining.
“Wrap it around you arm,” Scott instructed. His voice lowered. “I saw the rips.”
That’s gonna cost, Johnny thought, doing as his brother directed. “Maybe if you got on top of the bed, jumped up and down a little.”
Murdoch and Teresa were standing with their backs to the door, unmoving. There was no way on God’s green earth the cubs were going to be let loose beyond the confines of this room.
Scott actually looked as though he was considering Johnny’s suggestion about getting on the bed. However, reason prevailed. “Maybe if you pull the quilt out from beneath the bed,” he countered, “the cubs will come with it.”
Johnny’s head canted slightly to the right. Sometimes, he mused, his brother wasn’t as dumb as he looked. Unwinding the jacket from around his forearm, he tossed the coat atop the bed. “Good idea, Scott,” he breathed.
Dropping down to one knee, Johnny reached out with his left hand; tagging the corner of the quilt that remained in the open. Slowly, he began to gather the cloth beneath his fingers; bunching the fabric as he drew the blanket from underneath the bed. He knew from the weight the cubs were still attached to the thick coverlet. The weight and the fact that a new snowstorm of feathers were swirling about in the air. He sighed. Quilt, Scott’s jacket. There was going to be hell to pay when this was over.
Then, seeing the shiny tip of a black nose, his right hand darted out. Grabbing the cub by the scruff of the neck, he yanked it out from the darkness. “Gotcha!”
Wrong. Four paws wrapped around the young man’s forearm; the wild cat dangling belly up, razor sharp claws tearing into the bright red shirt sleeve. “Shit!!” As if the one enraged kit weren’t bad enough -- the cub was now attempting to chew Johnny’s thumb off -- the second one was attacking his left knee. Shit! If these are milk teeth, I’m sure in Hell glad I ain’t no cougar mama!
Johnny pinched the nose of the cub that was hanging from his arm; hard enough the kit let go. Struggling to stand up, the young man dropped the first cub onto his bed; furiously dancing on one foot and then the other as he swatted at the small wild cat that was still holding fast to his left pant leg.
The second kit disappeared beneath the bed. The other cub -- the larger of the two -- was standing in the middle of Johnny’s bed; it’s back arched and fangs bared. Vindictive, Johnny took a swipe at the animal; immediately regretting his move. He winced, clenching his teeth as the animal dug into the sheet and his mattress with all four claws; the cub’s hiss cutting into ensuing silence.
From beneath the bed came a second, even more menacing hiss. Scott watched in amazement as his brother’s mattress suddenly sagged; directly beneath the topmost kit. Now, in addition to feathers, large amounts of horsehair and cotton padding began to swirl above and below the bed; both cubs issuing challenges as their claws tore through the striped ticking.
The larger cub made one final swipe at the mattress, and then -- in a contrary display of bad humor -- found a new target to vent its rage. Grabbing Scott’s jacket with its forepaws, the animal curled the thick material into a ball and wrapped itself around the twill coat, biting and clawing the fabric with a vengeance. Then, tossing the jacket into the air with a final swat, the cat righted itself. When the coat settled back onto the mattress, the cub performed its final indignity. Asserting its dominance over its unseen sibling, the small cat squatted directly over the coat and pissed.
“God damn it! That’s it!” a voice roared.
Three heads immediately swung around to face Scott. Teresa’s hand was over her mouth, her eyes wide. Johnny -- once he closed his mouth -- was grinning from ear to ear and Murdoch was frowning. Even the cub seemed impressed; so much so it jumped off the bed and began climbing up the drapes. The second kit joined its brother.
Murdoch closed his eyes and leaned back heavily against the door; his right hand dragging across his face. Spreading his fingers a bit, he opened his eyes to stare out at the pandemonium; grimacing as the weight of the two cubs caused the bracket securing the wrought iron drapery rod begin its slow tear from the plastered wall. “John…” he growled.
Jesus. Johnny’s shoulders bunched as he heard his father whisper his name. He hated it when the Old Man got all quiet. It was way worse than the shouting. “I got it,” he said without turning around. He wished he knew what the Hell it was.
Scott made the decision for him. In two long strides, big brother crossed the room, climbed atop Johnny’s bed and reached out a long arm to open wide his brother’s window. Then, in his best Lieutenant Lancer voice, he barked: “Scat!!”
The cubs bolted for the open window, squirming their way through the iron bars to disappear over the ledge. Scott peered down into the courtyard, a slow grin coming as he turned to face his brother. “It’s not true,” he announced. “They don’t always land on their feet.”
Johnny mounted the bed; just as quickly dropping to the floor to stand beside his brother. He stared down at the disappearing cubs; jabbing a finger in their direction as he noticed one of them limping. “The drop coulda killed them,” he accused.
“It’s not the drop, little brother.” Smug, Scott smiled at his sibling. “It’s when the noose breaks the fall!” Right about now, surveying the damage in the room, he was wishing he had roped the cubs and then let them jump out the window.
Johnny shot his brother an if looks could kill glare, and then stepped back up onto his bed. Ignoring the look from his father, he dropped back down onto the floor on the opposite side; only to feel his foot slipping out from under him. A puddle of cat urine was spreading across the smooth planking; a fitting reminder of what had just occurred. Johnny felt himself falling backwards, a sudden thump coming as his head collided with the floor.
Scott vaulted across the bed. He dropped to one knee; not giving a damned about the wet floor. “Johnny.”
Murdoch and Teresa immediately joined Scott; the big man reaching down to grab his youngest son’s wrist and feeling for a pulse, his usual reaction when Johnny was in trouble. “Son,” he called.
Scott patted his brother’s face; gently. “Johnny?”
The dark eyelashes fluttered; the younger man’s nose twitching a bit as a feather drifted down from somewhere above him to land against his lips. He sputtered; just enough to dislodge the bit of down. “Hey, Scott.” Still seeing stars, he tried to focus. He was in his room, he knew that much, but all around him there were bits of feathers, horsehair and fabric; and the drapes that had covered his windows were…gone. Puzzled, he addressed his brother again. “’Member that story you were readin’ last night?” he asked; looking around a bit again to get his bearings. “The one that started out ‘It was the best of times,” he reached back, fingering the lump that was forming on the back of his head, “‘it was the worst of times’?”
The elder brother risked a quick look at their father, watching as the man’s expression changed from concern to consternation. “Oh, brother, if you only knew…”
Dinner was a grim affair. It hadn’t helped matters when Jelly barged in to announce the two cubs had not only terrorized Dewdrop, who was now minus several tail feathers; they had created all kinds of havoc in the hen house before he managed to chase them off. “Ya mark my words,” the handyman warned, shaking an arthritic finger at Johnny before turning his attention back to the patriarch, “them cats is gonna have themselves a merry old time stealin’ eggs, not to mention chickens!” With that, the old man headed back for the barn; slamming the door behind him.
Teresa immediately lost her temper. She had a genuine affection for her laying hens; managing in her own mind to separate their existence from the chickens that were being raised for meat. “Johnny, if they come back and hurt just one,” she jabbed a finger in the air, “just one of my hens…”
Johnny raised his left hand in a gesture of peace, hoping for some empathy as he displayed his bandaged fingers. He got about as much sympathy from the girl as he had gotten from his father when the man was attending his varied and abundant scrapes and scratches: none. In fact, he thought bitterly, the Old Man had taken great pleasure in cleaning and dosing each and every wound. He’d used the carbolic acid as if it was water. And it stung. “I’ll figure a way to keep your hens from gettin’ massacred,” he groused, as if he really gave a damn.
“Massacred!” She fairly screamed the word; repeating it even louder. “Massacred!! So help me, Johnny…” This time it sounded like a threat.
“That’s enough!” Murdoch growled. To emphasis his point, he thumped the table with a rigid forefinger. “We are going to finish our meal in peace,” he intoned, “and be grateful that the trouble is over and behind us!”
Scott lifted the glass to his lips, savoring the flavor of the wine. Taking a long drink, he considered his options; knowing there were but two: to simply kill himself, or throw himself upon his father’s mercy. Neither option was really plausible. He put down the glass. “Sir?”
Murdoch was slicing a piece of roast beef. “Yes, son?”
“I had a wire today,” he began; reassessing what he was about to say as he realized his father was holding a knife, a very sharp knife. What the Hell, he thought. No point in delaying the inevitable. “From Grandfather,” he continued. “He’s been in San Francisco, on business.”
Murdoch suddenly decided it might be a good idea to put down the knife, his eyes narrowing. “And?” he asked quietly.
“He’s coming here,” Scott answered. “Tomorrow.” He met his father’s gaze head on. There was no point in not telling the rest. “I did issue him a tentative invitation,” he confessed, “in one of the letters I wrote after I told him I had decided to stay here at Lancer, and,” he inhaled, “it seems he’s decided to accept.”
“And you’re telling me this now?” the older man seethed.
“I intended telling you when I first got home, sir, but…” Scott let the words drift off, choosing instead to nod at his younger brother, “…things just got out of hand, and I forgot.
Johnny shifted in his chair; fairly dancing in place. Not as sorry as you’re going to be, he thought ruefully, knowing full well what his father thought of Harlan Garrett. The best part, though, was that in the space of mere seconds, Scott had managed to take over the top spot on their Murdoch’s shit list.
Murdoch had picked up the knife again and was sawing viciously at the roast. “Am I to assume he’s going to have his usual entourage in attendance?” he asked. He used the knife to spear the slice of beef before placing it on his plate.
Scott inhaled slightly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the telegram and began reading. “Deevers, his new man servant; Lester McFarland, his clerk; Senator and Mrs. Seaton;” he brow furrowed as he read two names he didn’t recognize, “and a Miss Clarisse Bowers, and her companion, Miss Jenny Ivers.”
Murdoch had been ticking off the names with his fork, which he was jabbing into his baked potato. “Seven,” he ciphered. “Seven people.”
Teresa was doing some counting of her own. It was hard for Scott to determine from her expression if she happy with the idea of company -- the girl did seem to enjoy it when visitors from the East were in residence -- well, some visitors. He decided to risk it. “I know this is very short notice, Teresa,” he began, his tone apologetic.
She pinned him momentarily with a severe look that quickly gave way to a friendly smile; and then swung her gaze to her other adopted sibling. This time she frowned. “At least you have the good manners to give me some warning, and your guests are actually people; whereas…” She hesitated. “Murdoch. Where are we going to put all of them?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Mr. Garrett will expect the room next to Scott, and that leaves the other upstairs guest room for his man servant and his clerk,” she smiled at that, wrinkling her nose a bit. Long practiced at being Lancer’s official hostess, she continued. “The Senator and Mrs. Seaton can take the downstairs bedroom, off the Great Room.” Her brow furrowed. “Miss Bowers and her companion can have the two smaller downstairs bedrooms…” She paused again, her lips pursing slightly as she recalled the events from earlier that afternoon. “Where’s Johnny going to sleep?” she asked.
Murdoch was leaning back in his chair. The annex rooms were currently being refitted in preparation for the yearly visit of the out-of-town members of the California Cattle Growers Association. And Johnny’s room, in its current state, was totally uninhabitable.
“Bunk house!” This, enthusiastically, from the younger Lancer son. Johnny was grinning in anticipation of a few nights away from the old hacienda. Yep. He could see it now. Story tellin’, swappin’ lies, spittin’, scratchin’, and pickin’ lint out of his belly button; and no one to remind him of his manners or to tell him to settle down.
“You will not be staying in the bunkhouse,” Murdoch announced, leveling a stern gaze at his youngest son. “You can share your brother’s room.”
Scott visibly winced. He chose his next words very carefully. “Sir, I realize we are facing some unusual circumstances over the next few days, but is it really necessary…” he closed his eyes for a brief moment, “…that I share my room with Johnny while our guests are here?” He risked a look at his father.
Murdoch had passed up a second cup of coffee in favor of a much-needed glass of wine. He took a long drink before he spoke. The room was so quiet now the sound of the glass being placed back on table seemed earth-shatteringly loud. “Those ‘guests’ you’re talking about Scott, are your Grandfather and his retinue.” He cleared his throat. It was obvious from his tone he had not forgiven his eldest son for extending the invitation to Harlan Garrett; even if he, himself, was surprised the old reprobate would actually come.
Scott felt a sudden need to vindicate himself. “Sir, I never thought Grandfather would ever consider making the trip here to Lancer.” What he was saying was certainly true: the last place he ever thought his Grandfather would visit willingly was the ranch that had won over not only his daughter, but his grandson.
“Well, you were obviously wrong,” Murdoch growled. “Johnny will be staying in your room until the company has gone.” When his younger son started to protest, he raised his hand. “The matter is not open for discussion!”
It took a little time for Scott to digest his father’s proclamation. He opted for a second glass of wine, and drained the glass. “All right,” he agreed. Then, turning to his brother, “You come with me!”
Johnny had just helped himself to the piece of pie Scott had obviously chosen not to eat. Mid-bite, he eyed his brother. “Why?”
Scott shoved back his chair. “Sir, if you’ll excuse me. Us.” The last word came from between clenched teeth. His fingers closed around the back of Johnny’s chair, and he abruptly pulled it away from the table.
“Hey! I’m not done here!” the younger man protested.
“Oh, yes, you are, little brother!”
They were in Scott’s room. The tall blond had strategically positioned himself between his younger brother and the door and was standing, arms crossed. He was markedly calm. “Oh, no you don’t,” he murmured, his eyes narrowing as Johnny was just about to plop down on the big double bed.
“There are going to be some rules, little brother,” he announced, his voice deceptively soft. “First and foremost, no spurs.” He held up a finger. “Secondly, you will wear a night shirt.” The second digit popped up. “No food in the room.” Another finger. “No dirty clothes under the bed, on top of the bed, on the floor, hanging from the doorknobs.” The fourth digit rose. “No stray animals,” now it was his thumb, “and no -- absolutely NO -- fire arms under the pillow, hanging from the bed post or stuffed under the mattress.”
Johnny’s lips were slightly pursed, his head cocked to one side as he surveyed his sibling. “That sounds a whole lot like a whole bunch of orders, brother.” He smiled. “And you know how I feel about orders.” To emphasis his point, he flopped back onto the bed, spurs and all, and hunkered in.
“Rules,” Scott said. “My rules, my room…” he took a single, long step forward, “…behold the door.”
He could stand it no longer. Murdoch rose up from his chair, his fingers lingering a bit to caress the top of his desk, the one constant in his life he could still control. Shaking his head, he headed across the room and into the hallway.
The scuffling sounds had ended as promptly as they had begun; something, Murdoch thought, which was a good sign. He could only hope. Resigned, he began the long climb up the stairs.
The door to Scott’s room was closed, and he hesitated at bit before knocking. Two hard raps, his customary warning. And then, without waiting to be invited, he opened the door.
Scott was sitting in the overstuffed chair beside the bed. His legs were extended slightly, feet crossed at the ankles; the usual book resting across his slim thighs. “Sir,” he greeted. The smile was genuine; although a bit tenuous.
Murdoch’s right eyebrow lifted ever so slightly. There was a bruise on Scott’s left cheek, just below his eye. “Dickens?” he asked, nodding at the book. Out of the corner of his own eye, he could see Johnny; the younger man -- bootless -- propped up on the far side of the bed against a stack of pillows that were stuffed against the headboard. A matching bruise adorned his youngest son’s face.
Son number one nodded. “A Tale of Two Cities,” he answered.
“Uh-huh,” the older man acknowledged. He spoke again; this time to his youngest. “Teresa is bringing up your clean clothes.” Then, almost as an afterthought; “along with a clean night shirt.”
“Great,” Johnny responded; “Just great.” His arms were locked across his chest and he was clearly unhappy. “Since Garrett ain’t goin’ to be here ‘til tomorrow, guess there’s no point in me stayin’ with Scott tonight. I can use the room down the hall.”
Murdoch didn’t even bother to hide the smile. “Teresa and Maria have enough to do tomorrow without having to make up a room that’s already clean,” he said. “Besides, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to miss Scott’s reading of the story.”
Johnny cut a quick, dark look at his elder sibling. He resisted the urge to tell his brother to shove the book up his ass; along with his list of rules. “No,” he drawled. “Sure in Hell wouldn’t want to miss that…” Turning his gaze back to his father, he declared, “I’m sleepin’ in my room, Murdoch.” He started to rise up from the bed.
“No, John, you are not,” Murdoch intoned. When the younger man appeared ready to argue, he shook his head; just once. “There is no mattress on your bed, John. The drapes are gone from the windows; the quilt torn to shreds,” he raised his hand to stop the impending storm, “and the entire room reeks of musk.”
Johnny was on his feet. “Yeah. Well, it can’t be any worse then the stink of that…” he pointed to the dresser, “…cologne crap he takes a bath in.”
This time the older man had the good grace to hide the grin. Slowly, he appraised his surroundings, enjoying the neatness, so much like his own orderly room; the smile growing as he spied Johnny’s boots lined up at the foot of the bed. “I think, Johnny, you should consider this an opportunity to learn from your older,” his eyes warmed, “wiser and much neater brother. God only knows Maria and Teresa would welcome the change.”
Scott laughed. “Well, it is the elder brother’s duty to teach his baby brother a bit more than the social graces,” he observed.
“Then I’ll leave him,” Murdoch nodded at Johnny, “in your capable hands, Scott.
“Good night, boys.”
A pillow thudded against the door right after he closed it.
Hands in his pockets, Murdoch Lancer watched as Harlan Garrett’s rented brougham passed beneath the great arch, the large coach coated with a thick film of yellow dust. He could make out the liveried driver sitting erect and Boston proper in his high open seat, and felt a wave of pity for the man. Harlan Garrett was a harsh taskmaster; he knew that much from the things Catherine had told him early on in their courtship, just as he knew the man was not only exceedingly demanding, but a thoroughly unrepentant snob.
“This is going to cost me, isn’t it, Murdoch?” Scott came up beside his father, avoiding the man’s eyes as he smoothed his jacket for the umpteenth time. When he lifted his head, it was to gaze down the roadway to the approaching coach.
In spite of his mood, Murdoch smiled. Scott had been on his very best behavior all morning long. Not that the young man wasn’t the epitome of good manners and reasonable temperament the majority of the time anyway. But there was something very satisfying in knowing Scott was going to be trying even harder. “Yes, son,” he answered. “But I will endeavor to be fair.”
Scott caught the gentle teasing in his father’s voice and took it as a good sign. “Where’s Johnny?” he asked.
Murdoch grunted. “I just sent him upstairs to take a bath and change,” he said. He turned to face his eldest. “He took off for the barn right after breakfast, before I could stop him.” His tone was almost apologetic.
“He promised to be good,” Scott sighed.
The closer the coach got, the grimmer Murdoch’s expression was getting. “That was before you made him sleep on the floor last night,” the older man groused.
So Murdoch had heard their fight, Scott thought. And he had tried so hard to keep it down. “Do you have any idea,” he began, the words coming with the same frustration he had felt the night before, “any idea at all what it’s like to share a bed with Johnny?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “It was bad enough when he tried to sneak his pistol under the pillow,” the younger man complained. The next was more difficult to explain, at least with any delicacy. “My brother,” he breathed, “has the remarkable…” he hesitated, wondering if that was the right word, “…ability…” Scott felt his cheeks coloring, “…to discharge the most odiferous, foul-smelling…” God, he thought, why was his education failing him now? “…gaseous emissions possible, and does it without any auditory warnings.”
Murdoch’s mood lightened considerably at his son’s discomfort. “I had a dog that could do that,” he announced. “Before I realized what he had done, he’d sneak off with his tail between his legs, and then…”
Scott interrupted his father’s reverie. “Did that dog ever cover your head with a blanket and keep you confined with the stench until your eyes burned and you were forced to take a breath?” he asked.
Before Murdoch could answer, Johnny stepped out onto the patio. He was still pissed that his father had made him change clothes. He was also wearing the new boots Murdoch had made him purchase on their last trip to town, and they were about two years and a gallon of horse piss shy of being properly broke in; and his feet hurt. “So,” he said, tugging at his collar; his eyes narrowing as the coach pulled up into the yard. “Do I get to shoot the old son-of-a-bitch if he makes trouble,” he poked his father in the ribs, “or are you gonna do the honors?”
Teresa and Maria had done their usual wonderful job of settling all the guests in their respective rooms. A round of perfunctory pleasantries had been exchanged, and Scott was now giving his Grandfather the grand tour of the hacienda.
There was a great feeling of pride in the younger man as he escorted his Grandfather from room to room; as if by showing the elder man how well Murdoch had done over the years would justify -- validate -- his mother's love for the man and her decision to accompany him West. Scott was very careful to show his Grandfather Murdoch's large collection of books, obviously well read and also maintained with great care. It was the same with the tastefully done furniture and the works of art that hung on the walls. Lancer bespoke a gentile but simply stated wealth; with none of the heavy accoutrements of Harlan’s Boston mansion, a blending of cultures that was light and open to the sun.
“And your quarters, Scotty?” Harlan asked, nodding towards the stairs leading to the second floor.
Scott had purposely saved his own room for last. When he had first settled into the large, second floor bedroom, he had made a point of gathering things about him that would remind him of the comfort and order he had known growing up in Boston, but with additions of his own -- things he had purchased in Sacramento, or had found in the hacienda's vast attic. The young man knew his Grandfather would be impressed with the quiet order. “After you, sir,” he said, bowing slightly as he gestured towards the top of the stairs.
Out of consideration for his Grandfather, Scott paced himself, measuring his gait to the older man as they climbed the stairs. They had almost reached the top when Harlan reached out to tap his grandson's arm. “Scotty. That odor?” The old man's head lifted slightly, a deep frown forming.
Scott knew the smell wasn't as strong as the older man was intimating; and he was tempted to lie as to its cause. He settled on a partial truth, providing only a minimum of details. Continuing up the few steps to the hallway, he stopped outside Johnny’s closed door. “Remember, sir, how when I was a boy, I used to tell you I wished I had siblings?”
Garrett nodded his head. When he spoke, the words came out as if they had been well chewed on before he finally voiced them; each one carefully enunciated. “And do you remember, Scotty, when I cautioned you that you must not waste your time wishing for things that could not be?” He had known about Murdoch Lancer’s second marriage, just as he had known about his mixed blood son. Not that he would ever tell Scotty that; or any of the other things he knew.
Scott recognized his Grandfather’s tone and chose to ignore it. Laughing softly, he pointed to his younger brother’s door. “My wish was granted,” he said. “I have a brother,” there was a casual but definite stressing of the word, “and it has been…challenging.
“Johnny has a tendency for bringing home strays, Grandfather,” he continued. “Yesterday, he brought home two…” he held up the appropriate number of fingers, “… and his room is somewhat worse for the wear.”
Garrett’s nose was twitching disdainfully again. “Surely, the boy is intelligent enough to know he couldn’t possibly make a pet out of a skunk?”
Scott had to think about that for a moment. “Yes,” he finally answered, not quite certain he was sure. He shook the thought away, turning slightly to gesture down the hallway. “My room, Grandfather,” he said, leading the way. Reaching out, he turned the doorknob. “I’ve managed to make it more than comfortable,” he announced proudly; “a quiet place to read in the evenings, and -- of course -- my own writing desk...”
The door swung open; almost as wide as Scott’s mouth. Blinking rapidly, he back stepped into the hallway, almost running over the old man at his shoulder as he shut the door.
Harlan was having none of it. He reached across in front of his grandson, his hand closing firmly on the brass knob; opened the door, and stepped into the room.
Scott followed after his Grandfather. The room --his room -- was in total disarray. Speechless, he surveyed the havoc: closing his eyes as he remembered his father telling him that Johnny had been sent upstairs to bathe and change after a trip to the barn.
The room was still the same when Scott opened his eyes again. Drawers were hanging open and the doors to his armoire were standing wide. The right hand corner of his bedspread was hiked up, one pillow on the floor, the other hanging precariously off the edge of the bed. Johnny’s work hat was perched atop the far bedpost; his boots -- obviously, from the smell, covered in something more than horse manure -- were on opposite sides of the room. In the middle of the floor was his familiar red shirt, rolled up in a ball; and atop the shirt, his leather calzoneras.
Johnny’s summer long johns -- at least the bottom half of them -- were dangling from the top of the open secretary; hooked, somehow, on the edge of the silver-framed picture of Scott and Philip Sheridan. Barn dirt and straw littered the floor, and, poking out from beneath the bed, was a curiously lumpy gunny sack, damp with something that looked suspiciously like blood. And there were chicken feathers -- the unmistakable reddish brown down of Teresa’s Rhode Island Reds -- everywhere.
“Grandfather, I…” A soft breeze whispered through the open bedroom window, giving rise to a swirl of rust-colored plumage; a single feather skimming across Scott’s forehead to tumble from his nose.
Before Scott could finish, Johnny skidded to a quick stop in the hallway. He poked his head into the room, and immediately decided that now was not a good time. Quietly withdrawing, he suddenly found himself pinned in place by a single, hot glare from his elder brother. Scott’s face was completely drained of color. Johnny took a cautious step into the room. “Ah…” he avoided looking at Garrett and regretted he couldn’t do the same with his sibling. “I needed a tie,” he said lamely, pointing to nothing in particular.
It took only two steps for Scott to cross the floor and reach the threshold. “A tie,” he hissed. Reaching out, he grabbed the narrow cravat his sibling was wearing and pulled him close. Nose to nose with his brother, he gestured toward the mayhem behind them with his free arm. “You needed a tie?”
Luncheon was a tense affair. Murdoch’s stomach was growling before Maria cleared away the soup dishes. Scott was his usual charming self, keeping up a lively conversation with his Grandfather and Senator Seaton. The women -- the misses Bowers and Ivers and the Senator’s much younger wife, Anna -- were chatting non-stop with Teresa about how exciting life must be in the wild, wild, west; and Johnny…
Johnny was sitting in his chair on full alert; shooting dark, furtive glances in the direction of his elder brother.
Something was definitely going on between his sons, Murdoch thought. He heard Teresa call his name, and -- roused from his musings -- turned his gaze from his younger son to his elder; pleased with himself he still has the wherewithal to successfully divide his attention between what he was really concerned about and the conversation that was going on around him. “Ah, yes, the dance at Aggie Conway’s,” he said, smiling at his ward. “Saturday night; to celebrate the new barn she’s just had constructed.” He nodded in Teresa’s direction. “As Teresa can tell you, Aggie is one of the most popular women in the valley, and a most gracious hostess.”
Harlan Garrett cleared his throat. “We certainly wouldn’t want to impose,” he announced, putting down his napkin. In his head, he was thinking how absolutely unsuitable a barn dance would be; how disgustingly primitive.
Senator Seaton -- whose ambitions were something far beyond his place in the California State Senate -- put down his cup. “I’m sure Anna,” he nodded solicitously at his young wife, “and her friends would find it quite enjoyable, Murdoch.”
The elder Lancer smiled; well aware of Seaton’s plan to run for governor. Just as aware that Harlan was supporting the man’s efforts; reason enough that he himself would never vote for the man. “I’m sure they will,” he agreed. He turned his gaze on his two sons, smiling at each one in turn. “I’m also sure that both Scott and Johnny will be more than delighted to escort Miss Bowers and Miss Ivers to the dance.” He took a drink of his coffee. “Which one of the Simmons twins is going to be escorting you, Teresa?”
Teresa smiled. She snuck a look a Johnny; a second one at Scott. She wasn’t quite sure what her brothers had done, but it must have been something bad to make Murdoch vindictive enough to choose their dates. Not that the women weren’t reasonably attractive, she mused. It was just that they were such chatter-boxes!! She canted her head, “I’ve decided to let both Tim and Ned take me,” she announced brightly.
“Like that has a chance in Hell of happening,” Johnny muttered under his breath. The twins had been the first real friends he had made since returning to Lancer, but they were regular Hell raisers. They also snuck off pretty regular to visit the whore houses in both Green River and Morro Coyo.
Which is exactly where he had first met them.
“John,” Murdoch cautioned. He pushed himself away from the table and stood up; stretching a bit. “Scott, perhaps this would be a good time to take your grandfather and the Senator on a small tour of the ranch.”
Scott dabbed the last of the dessert from the corner of his mouth. He nodded, slowly. “Sir?” he ventured, looking at his Grandfather.
Johnny was actually perking up. “I’ll drive,” he offered.
Scott stood up and moved swiftly to take a place immediately behind his brother’s chair. Placing one hand on each of his sibling's broad shoulders, he gave the younger man a casual pat. “That won't be necessary, brother,” he smiled amicably. He was now using both hands to knead the tender flesh above Johnny's right and left collarbones. “They are my guests and I will do the driving,” he said. He leaned in a bit closer, keeping the words private. “Besides, you have other things to keep you occupied. What you're going to do, little brother, is clean up the mess you’ve made upstairs in my room.” Both hands still firmly in place on his brother as if determined to keep the younger man pinned to his chair, he bent down and whispered directly in the younger man’s right ear. “And if you don’t, I’m going to suggest to Teresa that she take her new friends outside to show them the hen house…”
Johnny’s eyes went wide. Shit! If Teresa went anywhere near the hen house before he could figure a way to slip in a couple of ringers for the half-dozen gutted chickens the lion cubs had left behind, he was dead meat!
Well, at least he had managed to catch the cubs and had them safely caged in the hayloft…
The scream, Murdoch was certain, was probably heard the full length and breadth of the entire San Joaquin valley and possibly all the way to the Barbary Coast. It came soon after Jelly led Zanzibar and Solomon and the covered surrey out of the barn to where Harlan Garrett, Senator Seaton and Scott were waiting.
Everything happened so incredibly fast. Scott was the first one to sense something was not quite right, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the bone pain in Jelly’s weather forecasting elbows. The first hint that something was wrong was when the bull rope that was threaded through the block and tackle used to haul the hay bales to the loft mysteriously began to disappear into the darkness beyond the door.
The larger of the two cubs reached out to snag the rope, the animal's right paw curling around the thick hemp. Then, using its teeth, the young mountain lion pulled the line to its chest; the slow screech of the pulley causing the animal's ears to go flat against its head. As if the rope was a living thing -- a large snake -- the wild cat grabbed hold with all four paws, suddenly finding itself suspended midair as the cord began its downward spiral.
Not to be outdone, the smaller cub joined the attack; both cubs now hanging from the thick rope as it picked up speed.
Too late, Jelly pulled the team of horses away from the barn. Speechless, he watched as the hoist rope continued its downward plunge, both cubs still clinging to the rough fiber; the large pulley screeching in protest until the large knot at the end of the rope stopped their descent. Instinctively, both cubs let go of the hemp as the rope jerked abruptly to a halt. The animals dropped the final few feet to land solidly against Zanzibar's broad rear end.
The bay gelding bolted as the cubs dug in a vain attempt to hang on. Unwise to the way of the four-footed beast they had just inadvertently mounted, the small cats suddenly found themselves sailing through the air.
It was then that Senator Seaton screamed. The lion cubs had landed in a heap at his feet, and had immediately clawed their way up his well-pressed trousers.
Scott and Murdoch roared the single word in unison. They stood, hands on their hips, watching as the surrey disappeared down the roadway in the direction of the Lancer arch; the two cubs taking off in the opposite direction.
Johnny was standing in Scott's bedroom, staring out the window at the scene that was unfolding beneath him. Unable to stop himself, he began to laugh; hard. The team was well on its way to Green River, Dewdrop was pecking the hell out of anything within beak distance, Jelly was trying his hardest to soothe the hysterically screaming Senator, Harlan Garrett was shaking a long, boney finger at Scott, and Murdoch...
Murdoch was heading straight for the house.
Scott was in the Great Room; seated in one of the overstuffed blue chairs, a full brandy snifter in his right hand. The long day was finally over. Cipriano's sons, Paco and Mateo, had brought back the surrey and the team -- Zanzibar and a totally unnerved Solomon were recuperating in the North pasture -- Jelly's and Dewdrop's bad tempers had been soothed, and Senator Seaton and his wife had retired right after dinner. The Misses Bowers and Ivers, after a major case of the vapors over all the excitement, were now graciously consoling Teresa; who -- after she had realized the cubs were still around -- had actually gone to the hen house to count her biddies.
“Your brother didn't join us for dinner.” Harlan Garrett's sonorous voice cut into the quiet as he took his seat next to his grandson.
Scott took a sip of the brandy. How many conversations, he wondered, had he had with his Grandfather that had started with the man stating the obvious as if it were a Heavenly revelation? ”No, sir,” he said softly; staring into his glass. ”Johnny's in Murdoch's study doing some paperwork,” he lied. “Maria took him a tray.”
Harlan merely nodded. ”So tell me, Scotty. Is it always this way with Johnny? Constant trouble and very little peace?”
“Would you care for some sherry, sir?” Scott asked, purposely avoiding the questions. Without waiting for an answer, he headed across the room to the drink table; fetching a small goblet for his grandfather and refilling his own glass.
“I asked you a question, Scotty,” Harlan countered.
“Actually, sir, two questions.” The blond returned to his chair and sat back down. He handed the glass of sherry to the older man. “My brother,” he stressed the word, “keeps life interesting for me, sir.” It was true. Life with Johnny reminded Scott of the more pleasant aspects of his time in the military. Prior to his capture, he had been part of an advance unit that specialized in something very akin to guerilla warfare. It had been exciting; a time filled with covert adventure, minor and major skirmishes that required tact and spur-of-the moment strategy. Life on the edge, he realized. Spontaneous and unplanned.
Like his life with Johnny.
And he liked it. Hell, compared to his life in Boston, he reveled in it.
“I want you to come back to Boston, Scotty.”
The younger man laughed. “No disrespect intended, Grandfather; but my home is here now. With my father and my brother.”
Well hidden in the shadows beyond the arched doorway, Johnny listened to the words his brother had just spoken and smiled. He liked what he had just heard. Enough, he thought, that he might even straighten up the mess he'd made in his brother's room. But not tonight, he grinned. Hell, there was always tomorrow. In his stockinged feet, he sprinted up the stairs.
In the Great Room, Scott prepared to bid his Grandfather goodnight. “If you'll excuse me, sir,” he said softly. “The day starts very early here at Lancer, and I have some things to tend to in the barn before I turn in.”
Harlan Garrett watched as his grandson strode from the room. He was filled with a sudden and bitter regret. His grandson, he mused, choosing this... he frowned as he gazed around the big room, seeing nothing but what he wanted to see ... barbaric wilderness over the comfort and convenience of a life filled with privilege and promise.
Johnny was lounging back on the far side of the bed, already partially beneath the covers when Scott came into the room. He grinned up at his elder sibling. “Don't holler,” he said, lifting his left leg from beneath the covers to point at his bare foot. “I took off my boots, and I'm wearin' a night shirt.”
Scott's right eyebrow arched. The room was still a mess; Johnny's things strewn from one end to the other, the clothes he had been wearing piled on top of the clothing that had been deposited on the floor and furniture earlier that very morning. “And the rest of this?” he asked.
“Mañana,” the younger man grinned. The smile faded a bit. “Didn't have much of a chance to do it after the Old Man got done with me.” He shifted a bit on the bed. He didn't know what hurt worse; his ass end from sitting on the chair in Murdoch's study, or his ears from the blistering the Old Man had given him. “Murdoch gave me a list of chores this,” he measured the distance with his outstretched arms, as if he were telling a fish story, “long. Got to get over to Aggie's and see if she's got some hens I can buy to replace Teresa's, and then I got to make it right with the Senator and ol' Harlan.” He sighed at that one, momentarily regretting the Pinkerton agent's timely arrival in Mexico. “And then I got to find those cubs.” He hesitated. “Says he wants me to dispose of 'em.” Again, he was quiet. “I ain't shootin' those cubs, Scott,” he finished.
The blond nodded. He understood without being told what his younger brother was thinking. The cubs had been orphaned, brutally, and Johnny could relate to that. Moving about the room, he began picking up things; not putting them away, simply tossing them at his brother. “We can turn them loose north of Black Mesa, Johnny,” he suggested. “It's still spring up there, and there's plenty of small game for them to hunt. If they can take down Teresa's hens, I'm sure instinct will prevail and they will learn to hunt.”
Johnny mulled over his brother's words. “They make it through the winter, they could give us some trouble next year,” he sighed.
“It wouldn't be the first time Lancer lost a cow or two, little brother. According to Darwin, it's how nature works: the cats will take down the lame or the weak before they'll take on an animal that's fit. We'll worry about it then.” Scott picked up Johnny's red shirt and hurled it at his brother's head.
The younger man ducked, letting the shirt fall to the floor beside the bed. Scott was still prowling around the room. It was then Johnny noticed Scott's lariat; which was coiled around the older man's right shoulder. “You got a reason for carryin' that rope tonight, big brother?” he asked, his eyes narrowing.
Scott bent down in search of the gunny sack that had been under the foot of the bed; relieved when he saw it was gone. “Yep,” he answered, standing up.
Johnny bolted upright in the bed. “For what?” he demanded.
“For this,” Scott answered, dropping down onto the bedspread. On his knees, he shifted slightly and let the reata drop from his shoulder, his nimble fingers shaking out a fair-sized loop.
Laughing, Johnny put out a restraining hand. “I'll knock you on your ass, Boston!”
Undeterred, Scott dropped the loop over the railing at the head of the bed, pulled it forward, and worked the still-coiled lariat through the slack. “When I rearranged this room,” he began, eyeing the dark wood and mentally counting the row of milled, egg-sized ovals, “I placed this bed precisely in the center of the room.” Content he had found the true middle on the thick railing, he pulled the loop tight, carefully arranging it against the dark wood in a way that would not mar the finish. He stepped off the bed, uncoiling the rope as he backed up towards the far wall. He held the rope up, eyeing it carefully until it was plumb; and then looped the opposite end over the top of his dresser. He moved the heavy piece, securing the rope with a series of loops at the base of the mirror.
Finished with chore, he shook a finger at his younger brother. “This is how it's going to be, little brother.” His finger shifted to point at the floor on the side of the room where he was now standing. “This is my side of the room.” He jabbed the same finger toward the opposite wall. “That is your side of the room.
“I've given up all hope that you will keep things tidy,” he groused, “so we're going to compromise. I don't give a damned what you do over there,” he gestured again, gritting his teeth in denial, “but on this side of the room...” His eyebrow rose even higher. “Not one thing of yours, Johnny. Not one mote of corral dirt, not one item of clothing -- clean or unclean -- no food, nor drink; nothing...” the word sounded like a threat “of yours is to defile this side of the room. And no trespassing without asking. Understood?”
There it was, Johnny marveled; that Lieutenant Lancer don't tread on me tone. Scott, he surmised, was not joking around; he was dead serious. What the Hell, he thought. “Okay,” he agreed, shrugging.
Suspicious, Scott canted his head. “What?” This had been too easy; way too easy.
“Okay,” the other repeated. He smiled; his face radiating the boyish innocence that even Scott found endearing.
“Okay.” Scott echoed. He decided to give his brother the benefit of the doubt. Turning around, he began undressing.
Clad in an immaculate flannel night shirt, Scott pulled back the bedspread and crawled in. He cast a quick look at his brother and reached out, his hand snaking under the younger man's pillow in search of the youth’s pistol. Johnny slapped his hand and nodded at the rope that hung suspended between them. “My side,” he grouched. “Hand's off.” He returned to what he was doing; digging at a sliver in his right thumb with a small pen knife.
Scott withdrew his hand. “Fine.” He turned and reached out to the bedside lantern and turned down the wick; lifting the globe slightly to blow out the flame.
“Hey. I was doin' something over here,” the younger Lancer snorted.
“Lamp's on my side,” Scott countered. “Good night.” He rolled over onto his stomach and stretched out his legs.
Vengeful, Johnny toed his brother’s right foot when it momentarily strayed in his direction. “No trespassin’,” he growled. “And you oughta talk to Jelly about trimmin’ them toenails! And another thing…”
Scott’s terse response was muffled as he plumped his pillow and clenched it around his ears.
Johnny settled back against the thick goose down pillow, his arms above his head. Two can play this game, he thought. Beside him, he was aware of the measured rhythm of his brother's gentle breathing. Scott had already fallen asleep.
He waited until he was sure Scott was completely out. Then, pressing his hands firmly against the mattress, he levered himself upright. He sat for a brief moment on the edge of the bed, and then, slowly, like a cat; he stood up.
Crossing to the window, he stood for a time. Scott's room was at the front of the house. His window, like the others on the front-facing rooms, was covered with an ornate grill. All the upstairs rooms had iron grillwork on their windows. The rooms at the back -- like Johnny's room -- had similar grillwork, but the wrought iron had been worked differently. The grill work at the front of the house was primarily decorative; straight up and down bars ornately turned: while the iron criss-cross grids on the back windows were designed for defense, to keep invaders out.
Johnny reached out, fingering the carefully turned rods. He grinned, thinking of other bars in other places; the jails he had been in and out of as a kid. And sometimes now in Green River, he mused. Val Crawford could be a vindictive SOB when he thought Johnny was misbehaving. Which he seemed to think Johnny did; a lot.
He shook his head; bringing himself back to the here and now. This rope thing was bullshit; as was his brother's long list of no's. Especially that one about 'no trespassing without asking' crap.
Yep, he thought. This shit is gonna stop. Big brother may think he's holdin' all the cards, but so what? What old Scotty doesn't know, he snorted, is that he's playin' with a marked deck, and I'm the one that can read the cards!
Grinning, Johnny pulled himself up on the window's wide ledge. Sucking in his gut, he stuck his head between the two bars at the center of the grid; shifting slightly to turn himself sideways as he snaked through the bars. He grimaced as he heard the soft tearing of fabric; stopping dead half-way through the window and holding his breath. Behind him, he heard Scott shift slightly in the bed as he rolled over onto his back, and gritted his teeth. Then he heard it, the soft reassuring snore as his brother continued to sleep.
Johnny dropped down onto the clay tiled roof; just in time for the night wind to rustle through the trees, the cool breeze strong enough to lift the tail of his nightshirt and expose his bare ass to the pale moon. The sensation was enough to produce a small whistle, immediately regretted, as the young man smoothed the night shirt back into place.
The roof tiles were cold against his feet as he pattered his way towards the edge of the slight incline. Arms outstretched, he kept his balance as he worked his way at an angle toward the front portico. Then, dropping down to his knees and then his belly, he peered over the edge. As he had hoped, the house was dark.
Legs dangling, he began the slow slide off the roof, allowing gravity to take hold as he dropped to the ground. He landed hard, going down on his rear-end; not a good thing since he had miscalculated his drop and landed in the middle of one of Teresa's new rose bushes. There was the sound of tearing again; this time somewhere in his nether regions instead of at his shoulder as before, and he swore. “Damn!”
He stood up, brushing himself off as he anticipated his next move. A devilish grin appeared and he headed for the front door. Good thing, he thought, Murdoch decidin' no more of this open door shit after the last time someone just strolled into the house late one night lookin' for Scott. Yep. Last thing the Old Man does every night. Locks the doors. All the doors.
Murdoch had fallen asleep in his big chair beside the fireplace in the Great Room. In his robe, he had come downstairs for a much needed bit of quiet in a familiar space after Scott and Garrett had gone to their separate bedrooms; seeking a little solace in a final glass of Talisker's after he locked the windows and the doors. He was snoring a bit, his face softened by the soft glow from the hearth, his massive chest rising and falling as he drifted further off into a wonderfully dreamless sleep.
And then the knock came. Only it was something more like the noise of a battering ram against heavy timbers. The older man bolted immediately upright and alert, years of living with the constant threat of danger rousing him fully and pulling him to his feet. The sound came again, and he headed towards the door.
So, it seemed, did everyone else in the house. Behind him, he heard Maria padding barefoot from the kitchen. The Senator and his wife were coming into the Great Room, and the two young ladies had appeared in the back hallway. Teresa, Scott and Harlan Garrett, pulling on their robes, were coming down the stairs. The only ones with the good sense to stay in their rooms seemed to be Harlan Garrett's clerk and man servant. Disgusted, Murdoch strode into the front entryway and unlocked the door.
“Hey,” Johnny greeted.
Murdoch stood back as his youngest son stepped into the hallway. “John,” he greeted; the words coming through clenched teeth.
“Need to use the jake,” the younger man announced, pointing to a spot somewhere above his head and in the general direction of the upstairs bathroom. He blinked a bit as Scott struck a match and lit the hanging lantern above the front door.
Johnny felt himself being yanked further into the hallway, his father's fingers closing around his upper arm. He started to say something, only to feel his father's eyes -- as well as the orbs of everyone else -- staring hard at him. At his...
…crotch, he realized. ”Oooops,” he said, instinctively crossing his hands in front of himself; painfully aware that the tear at the hem of his nightshirt extended almost up to his belly button.
“And you used the front door why?” Murdoch demanded.
“Had to,” the younger man answered.
Scott edged in next to his father. “Johnny?”
“The door's on your side of the room,” the younger man snapped. “Remember? No trespassin’ without askin’. ”
Murdoch was seriously considering having a stroke. “Scott?” he murmured.
Number one son's face turned dark red and then went completely pale. “Murdoch, I...”
Johnny grinned up at his sibling, loving the way his older brother was fumbling around for an explanation. He felt duty bound to help. “Scott said I couldn't come on his side of the room unless I asked. He was sleeping, so...” He shrugged.
Harlan Garrett surveyed the scene before him, and decided it was time to speak. “They share a room?” he asked indignantly. “Surely, in a house this large...”
Murdoch turned slightly to face his long time adversary. “The annex bedrooms are being refurbished in anticipation of some...invited...guests,” he growled. “The boys...” his head swung back and forth as he glared at both young men, “...are sharing a room because...” He stopped mid sentence. There was no way in Hell he owed this man any explanation. He pulled Johnny down the hallway and shoved him in the general direction of the stairway. “Both of you. Upstairs. Now!!”
Harlan Garrett puffed himself up and attempted to block the way as Scott started up the stairs. “Now, see here, Murdoch. I will not stand for you talking to Scotty in this manner!”
Scott inhaled. Almost whispering, he addressed the white-haired man. “Grandfather, if I were you, I don't think...”
Murdoch was less subtle. “Harlan,” he growled. “This is between me and my sons. Just shut the Hell up!!”
Johnny was hot on his elder brother's heels as the long-legged blond mounted the stairs by twos. “Holy shit, Scott! Did you hear that?” It was one thing for his father to lose his temper -- to lose control -- with him and his brother, but with guests? Old Murdoch was a stickler for manners, no matter what. Even with ol' Harlan.
Murdoch stood at the foot of his eldest son's bed, his fingers knotted around the mahogany colored railing. Better here, than around their necks, he thought. His eyes swept the room, settling finally on the rope that was stretched from the head of the bed to the dresser. He shook his head. All those years he had wondered what it would be like to have his sons’ home; growing up on Lancer. “Would one of you care to explain this?” he asked, fingering the reata.
Scott cleared his throat. He cast a wary eye at his younger brother, popping him on arm when he saw the mouth began to open. “I did it,” he admitted. He jerked his head in the general direction of the side of the room Johnny was supposed to be occupying. “When I brought Grandfather up here this morning...” God, he thought, how could so much have happened in so short a time? “...to see my room, it was a disaster.” He really couldn't think of a better word. “I just wanted to get even.”
“I was gonna clean it up,” Johnny volunteered. The guilt that should have been evident in his face turned to a look of near accusation as he stared hard at his father. “'Til you got me in the study and chewed my ass out...”
Murdoch silenced his younger son with a dark, sullen glare that would have made Johnny Madrid reconsider his choice of professions. “I want this nonsense stopped,” he announced, “all of it.
“Tomorrow,” he began anew, “you,” he jabbed a long finger at his youngest son, “will attend to that list of chores I assigned you today. You will also apologize to our guests before breakfast, and then you will get yourself over to Aggie's and buy -- out of your own pocket -- a sufficient number of hens to replace the ones that are gone.” He held up his hand when Johnny started to protest. “You will also make peace with Jelly. And then...” he took a deep breath, “...you will find those cubs, and you will dispose of them.
“As for you,” Murdoch ground out, turning to face his eldest. “Since you are at least partially responsible for what just happened, you will restore this room to its proper order.” To emphasis his point, he pinched the rope between his thumb and forefinger, pulled it taut, and let go. In another time and another place this would probably have been very funny. Tonight, however, he found absolutely nothing amusing in what had happened or how his sons were behaving.
The blond was giving some very serious thought to his father’s final pronouncement. He was willing to admit his little prank had gotten out of hand, but the root cause was still Johnny’s rather overwhelming sloppiness. “With all due respect, sir,” he began, “this is Johnny’s mess, and I think it’s only fair he should be the one to clean it up.”
“Fair?” Murdoch growled. He repeated the word, his hands once again wrapped around the foot of the bed, making a peculiar wringing motion. “Fair?”
Both young men inclined their ears toward their father, who was almost whispering. Scott studied his father’s countenance, noting a certain strange gleam in the man’s eyes, and found himself wishing that when he had refurbished his room he had included a bottle of just in case Talisker’s as well a healthy supply of bourbon. Johnny was also paying close attention to the look on the Old Man’s face; truly concerned that, this time, he had pushed his father too far. Way too far.
Murdoch was speaking again; to Scott, but the quiet words were for both of his sons. “If the world was a fair place, Scott, I would be in my own bed; sleeping a dreamless sleep, sure and certain in the knowledge my obedient, responsible sons were also asleep; far too exhausted from doing their chores to get into any further mischief.” He finally let go of the bedstead, but still looked like he wanted to strangle someone. “I may have to give some further thought to that,” he muttered, “making sure you both have enough to do to keep you out of trouble.” With that, he turned on his heel and strode out the door.
Both Scott and Johnny jumped when the massive door slammed shut.
“Happy?” Johnny spat. He didn’t wait for an answer. “The Old Man already gave me a list big enough to choke a fuckin’ cow! If he spends the night thinkin’ about it, we’re gonna be pushin’ up daisies before we ever see the inside of a whore house again, let alone…”
Scott was removing his robe. He shot an incredulous look at his younger brother. “I’ve yet to see a dead man in a whore house, Johnny,” he snorted. “Unless you’re counting that time you got yourself so dead drunk you couldn’t even make it up the stairs to…” He laughed at the memory.
Johnny popped him. Not too hard; just enough so that when Scott retaliated he could justify hitting him back.
It was mid morning, and Scott -- already finished with his work in the barn -- was in his room cleaning up. Teresa, armed with an empty laundry basket, had decided to join him. He was recoiling the lariat he had untied from the bed as he spoke. “Tell me again why I can’t kill him?” he asked. At breakfast, Johnny had handed him the salt shaker, and when Scott used to season his eggs, the top fell off.
Teresa canted her head a bit to the right. “He’s your brother,” she said.
“Cain and Abel were brothers,” the older man countered. He bent over to pick up a pair of Johnny’s socks; changing his mind. Reaching out, he picked up the walking stick that was leaning against the wall -- the same silver handled cane he had been carrying that night in Boston when the Pinkerton agent had approached him. Using the stick as a hook, he speared a sock and dropped it into Teresa’s laundry basket. “Give me another reason,” he ordered.
The young woman was thinking, her brow furrowing. She brushed away a stray lock of hair that fell across her forehead. “Murdoch would really be upset with you.” She smiled.
Scott harpooned the second stocking, giving it a little twirl before dropping it into the wicker basket. “Maybe not,” he said. “Murdoch was still pretty angry this morning.” He grinned across at the girl. “Maybe I can convince him someone else did it,” he said.
Teresa brightened. “Like who?” she asked.
“Whom,” Scott corrected. He was picking up Johnny’s dirty shirt now. “Jelly,” he suggested.
“Jelly would never kill Johnny, no matter how mad he was,” the girl snorted. “That would be like suggesting Maria did it.”
The shirt disappeared into the bin. “Val,” Scott responded. “He’s always threatening to kill Johnny.” It was true. Just last week, the lawman had sworn an oath to dispatch Johnny by means most foul, as well as promising to hang the boy’s hide out to dry.
Teresa was laughing now. “You’re really angry with him, aren’t you?”
Scott shot a severe look at the young woman; his eyes the color of slate. “Let me count the ways,” he grimaced. He didn’t give her an opportunity to respond. Instead, he began listing the reasons he wanted his younger brother dead. “First and foremost, there is the incident with the mountain lion cubs…” he held up one finger and then a second one as he remembered the incident at the barn, “and then,” his jaws tightened at the memory, “there was last night...”
Teresa bit her lower lip in a futile attempt to stop the smile. “I'll never be able to mend that night shirt,” she murmured.
“And what about your chickens?” Scott asked. “Are you suggesting that you’ve forgiven him for that rather bloody end for Mabel, Buttercup, Lily, Henny-Penny, Bessie and Maude?” He felt rather proud of himself; remembering all the names. Although, he had to admit, Teresa had repeated them over and over as she was bemoaning her losses.
The girl inhaled. “Poison,” she said finally, her eyes becoming snake-like.
Scott was shaking his head. “Johnny has a cast iron stomach. We slip him something, he’d probably just get sick and we’d have to take care of him.” His brow furrowed as he picked up yet another white sock. He’d only found three so far, and it was driving him crazy. Stockings came in pairs, he reminded himself. Using the cane, he lifted the corner of the bedspread.
“I never find an even number of socks,” Teresa sighed. Yet another reason to kill her adopted sibling.
Scott was smoothing the bedspread, lining up the hem so that it was exactly the same distance from the floor along its entire length. “I found more underwear shirts than I found bottoms,” he said. He canted his head a bit, looking at the laundry basket, which was now almost full. “I think he brought every bit of clothing he could find and tossed it in here this morning…”
Teresa nodded. She pointed to the shirt Scott had just retrieved. Her nose wrinkled a bit. “I think that’s one of Jelly’s,” she announced.
The blond shook his head. “So when does Maria think his room will be habitable again?” he asked.
“Not until the end of the week,” Teresa answered.
Four more days, Scott thought bitterly. “I won’t last that long,” he muttered.
Teresa reached out to pat her older brother on the shoulder. “Maybe we could just hire someone,” she consoled. “I bet your Grandfather would pay for it!!”
Scott laughed. The room was beginning to look better, and his mood was gradually improving. “I’ve changed my mind about killing him,” he breathed, putting the last of the dirty clothing into the basket. “I’m thinking more along the lines of talking Murdoch into sending him to a boarding school until he’s twenty-one.” He winked at his sister. “Virginia Military Institute,” he grinned.
Teresa clapped her hands. “He’d have to get a haircut! He’d hate that!!”
Scott was nodding his head. “I know.” Pictures of Johnny all dressed up in a uniform and marching in time across a parade ground assaulted his mind, and he dissolved in laughter.
Hat in hand, Johnny was standing on Aggie Conway’s front porch. “Ma’am,” he greeted.
Aggie Conway opened the screen door, a smile immediately forming and reaching up to make small wrinkles at the corners of her greens eyes. “Why, Johnny! Good Morning.” she stepped back and gestured for him to in. “What a lovely surprise!”
It wasn’t, of course. Murdoch had made a point of arriving at her house just as she was lying breakfast; apologizing for his early arrival but obviously needing to talk. In less time than it took to drink two cups of strong coffee, he had told her the entire story: Johnny’s rescue of the mountain lion cubs, Harlan Garrett’s arrival, the incident with Teresa’s laying hens, and the boys’ silly feud.
Aggie reached out a comforting hand, patting the younger man’s arm before leading him toward the kitchen. “You look like a young man with a problem, Johnny,” she observed. “There’s very little a cold glass of milk and a piece of apple pie won’t solve, you know,” she said cheerily.
Johnny stepped into the tidy kitchen. Already, he was fidgeting. “Don’t have much of an appetite right now, ma’am,” he announced.
The woman’s smile appeared again. “Are you in trouble with your father, Johnny?” she asked. She nodded to a vacant chair.
The younger man debated a heartbeat and then took his seat. “Some,” he answered. When he felt the woman’s eyes on him, he returned the smile with a lop-sided grin, his eyes warming. “Lots,” he admitted.
Aggie Conway was a woman who lived life fully, and with few regrets. One of those sorrows, however, had been that she and her husband, Henry, had never been blessed with children. When Murdoch’s sons had returned to Lancer, that unhappiness had been lightened somewhat: she and Murdoch were great friends; and a benefit of that friendship had been her relationship with his sons.
She had a special warm spot for Johnny.
Slicing the pie, she changed her mind about the original cut line, readjusting the blade and almost quartering the still-steaming pastry. “Would you like to talk about it, Johnny?”
Handing the young man his piece of pie, she headed for the cooler and the stone crock. She was ladling him a large glass of milk, aware of the silence behind her. There was a noise as the young man shifted slightly in his chair.
“Found a couple of cougar cubs,” he said, taking a bite of pie. There was a soft sigh. “Their mama was dead, so I brought ‘em home.”
Aggie smiled. She turned around and headed for the table; putting the glass of milk down at Johnny’s right hand. “And…?”
“They made a little trouble,” he answered. He was staring at the pie, marveling at the perfection of not only the apple slices, but the flavor of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and sugar. For a moment, he was torn between taking another bite, or a sip of milk. He decided on the pie.
“A little trouble, Johnny?” Aggie’s green eyes were twinkling as she asked the question.
This time, he chose the milk. Johnny took a long swig; almost forgetting himself and wiping his mouth with his sleeve. He picked up the napkin and dabbed a bit at the corner of his mouth. “They got loose,” he breathed. “That’s why I’m here. They got into T’resa’s hen house.”
“Oh, my,” the woman said; smiling a bit wider as she remembered Murdoch’s version of the entire story. She looked down, studying the back of her hands as she composed herself. “You need to find some hens.” The intended question sounded more like a statement.
Johnny nodded. “T’resa counted and said they got a half-dozen before Jelly chased ‘em off.” He shrugged. “Murdoch said I should buy some from you.”
Aggie nodded, as if she were considering his request. “You know, Johnny,” she began. “No matter how young those cubs were…” she corrected herself, “…are…it wasn’t really a good idea to take them away from what’s natural for them.”
Somehow, the scolding from the woman was a lot easier to take than all the yelling everyone else had done. “Got that one figured out now, ma’am,” he said. He was forking up the last bit of pie and crust. “‘Bout those hens?”
The woman reached out and patted his hand. “I’m not going to sell them to you, Johnny,” she said.
Her words surprised him, and then -- turning on the smile -- he figured he was about to gain a half dozen chickens and it wasn’t going to cost him a dime.
Murdoch found his youngest son scrounging around the kitchen. He watched in awe as Johnny built himself a sandwich of gigantic proportions. “We missed you at supper, son,” he said, heading for the coffee pot.
Johnny was standing at the table, one leg slightly cocked. He was a mess. Well, more of a mess than usual after a day’s work, Murdoch thought. “Coffee?” he asked.
The younger man shook his head. “Got the hens,” he said finally.
Murdoch had the feeling his son had a story to tell; and he was pretty certain of what it was going to be. Pretending otherwise, he pulled out a chair and sat down. “Six of them?” he asked.
Again, Johnny shook his head. “Twelve,” he said. He turned to look at his father. “Aggie -- Mrs. Conway -- said I needed to learn a lesson,” he announced.
“Oh?” Murdoch was blowing into his cup.
"Yeah,” the younger man answered. He was still trying to figure the woman out. “Said she wouldn’t sell me any, but I could earn ‘em.”
Murdoch hid the smile. “Well, Aggie has always had an innate sense of fairness,” he reckoned, “and justice.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Justice?”
“Well, you were responsible for the loss of Teresa’s hens,” the older man reasoned. “Why twelve?” he asked.
Toeing out a chair, Johnny sat down. He answered the question with one of his own. “You known Aggie for a long time?” he asked.
“Since before you were born,” Murdoch answered. “She and Henry grubstaked a man who did quite well in the gold fields.” He’d also been a partner in that venture. “They used their profits to invest in land and cattle.” He took another drink of coffee. “You didn’t answer my question, son. Why twelve?”
Johnny was using his fingers to pick up what was left of his bread; rolling the crumbs around until he had a little wad of dough between his thumb and forefinger. He popped it into his mouth. “I told her T’resa wasn’t talkin’ to me. She said if I wanted to make peace with her, I’d better do more than replace the six dead ones.” His brow furrowed, and he looked up to meet his father’s gaze head on. “What she said was if ever wanted to get anywhere with a woman, I better learn that I’ll get a he… heck of a lot farther if I give ‘em a whole dozen roses than that one perfect rose bud the poets are always yammerin’ about.
“What the hell does that mean, Murdoch?” he asked, truly perplexed.
“It means, my boy, that Aggie Conway is a very practical woman,” Murdoch answered, “and that you’ve got a lot of growing up to do before you decide to go courting!” He reached out, ruffling the younger man’s hair. “And just what did you have to do to earn those hens?”
Johnny leaned back in his chair. “Mucked out the chicken house, put down new bedding in the layin’ boxes, hung a new gate and split about a cord of kindlin’.” He raked his fingers through his hair, shaking his head a bit to wake himself up and still couldn’t stop the yawn. “Woulda been a hell of a lot easier if she just had someone she wanted me to shoot,” he muttered under his breath.
Murdoch smiled a bit, ignoring the last. He stood up. “I have to talk to Cip about tomorrow’s work assignments, Johnny. You need to go to bed.” When he saw his son’s head come up, his tone changed. “No foolishness tonight, John. Understood?”
The younger man was too tired to argue, or even to plot any mayhem. He nodded and waved a weary hand.
Murdoch took his leave. He made a mental note that the next time he called at Aggie’s for their monthly dinner, he would take her that dozen roses.
Murdoch crossed the courtyard; heading for Cipriano’s small house. He stopped midway as he spotted his eldest son, changing course and heading for the corral. Scott was standing with his back against the adobe wall, the faint orange glow of a small cigarillo intensifying as the younger man took another drag. “Long day, son?” Scott rarely smoked.
The younger man nodded. He pinched out the small cigar, dropping it to the ground and grinding it out with his heel. As was his usual habit, he picked up the dead smoke and worked it between his thumb and forefinger, scattering the remaining tobacco and dead ash to the wind. “We didn’t find any sign of the cubs,” he said softly. “Cipriano’s concerned they may be hiding somewhere nearer the house than we thought.”
Murdoch reached out, stretching against the corral gate and then pulling himself upright. “I was hoping we could deal with the cubs without Johnny’s knowing,” he declared. He shook his head, chuckling a bit in spite of the seriousness of their conversation. “Aggie kept Johnny busy all day, just as we planned. I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
Scott laughed. “I was watching him when he was taking care of Barranca. He was so tired he didn’t even know I was there!” His mood changed. “As aggravated as I can get with my baby brother, I understand what his intentions were when he brought the cubs home.” He smiled across at his father, his face awash with the light of a full moon. “Johnny’s got a soft heart, Murdoch.”
“And a hard head,” the older man countered. Restless, he stuffed his hands into his back pockets. “You don’t agree with me about the lion cubs, do you?”
“I understand this is a working ranch, Murdoch, and there are harsh realities when it comes to business.” Scott was drawing circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot; a habit he had picked up from his younger brother. He realized he was avoiding his father’s question. “I suggested to Johnny we cage the cubs and turn them loose up where he found the mother.”
“Up at Cedar Creek?” Murdoch asked. “At the line shack?”
Realizing he had made a mistake, Scott smoothly executed a perfect diversionary tactic. “Actually, sir, I reconsidered and suggested we take them up into the mountains north of Black Mesa. You said yourself the terrain is too rough to run cattle, and except for the occasional stray and small game, there’s not much there.”
The big Scot was quiet for a moment. When he finally spoke, the fatigue from the long day was evident in this voice. “Except those wild horses your brother is so fond of,” he breathed. “I’ve seen a big cat take a foal before the mare has a chance to expel the afterbirth, Scott. It’s not a pretty sight.” Or sound, he thought, remembering. He sighed. “If I can teach your brother anything, Scott, I hope it will be that he needs to think before he acts.”
Scott stifled a cough with his right hand, shaking a bit as he realized just how cold it was becoming. It was spring, but there was still a coldness to the air beneath the pale light of the night moon. “Instinct is what kept Johnny alive, Murdoch. That’s a hard habit to break.” He was speaking now from personal experience, although his time in Libby had been much shorter than his brother’s life below the border. He felt a need to lighten the mood. “Do you think you could also teach him to clean his room, sir? Or mine?”
Appreciative of what his elder son was doing, Murdoch reached out and drew the younger man to him. “I’ll add it to the list,” he joshed, “along with getting to the table on time for dinner, matching up his dirty socks, and not sneaking off with the last of the chocolate cake.”
Together, the two men headed back for the house. “What about the cubs?” Scott asked.
“I’ll consider your suggestion about Black Mesa,” Murdoch answered, “but don’t say anything to your brother yet. I want him to think about the consequences of his actions. Perhaps the next time, he’ll think twice about bringing home another stray.”
Scott laughed. “Next time?” he ventured. He couldn’t help but recall his Grandfather’s comment about a Johnny bringing home a skunk.
Harlan Garrett made the announcement the next morning at breakfast. Scott was pretty certain it had something to do with Johnny’s decision to slide down the banister on his way to the dining room; that, and the fact Harlan had been at the foot of the stairs when Johnny hit the floor.
“Oooops.” Johnny reached out his hand to keep Harlan Garrett to from falling on his ass; only to have it smacked away. “Sorry.” He tried to act repentant and to suppress the smile, but failed miserably.
Garrett stalked to the dining room, took his seat and glared at his grandson. “My companions and I will be leaving tomorrow, Scotty. I’ll need you to see to the coach and to arrange for our train.”
Scott watched as his brother sauntered into the room. “Johnny?”
“Had a little accident at the bottom of the stairs,” the younger man said. He sat down in the empty chair on his father’s left.
“You slid down the banister,” Murdoch accused. He took a quick sip of coffee, wishing he had been there to see Harlan’s face.
“Are you all right, sir?” Scott asked, turning to his grandfather.
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances,” the elderly man answered brusquely, taking the seat next to his grandson. He shook out his napkin. “I’ll expect you to accompany us to the railway station, Scotty.”
Scott said nothing. He was accustomed to his grandfather’s ultimatums, and this one, strangely, he actually didn’t mind. Instead of addressing his grandfather, he turned to Murdoch. “Father?”
Murdoch returned his elder son’s steady gaze; the corner of his mouth quirking upwards a bit at the corner at not only the unexpected endearment, but what appeared to be a request for permission. “I’m sure we can spare you, son.” He finished the last of his coffee. “In fact, you can make a day of it.” Smiling, he nodded at his youngest. There might not be any diversions for Johnny today regarding the search for the cubs, but there was now a potential one for tomorrow. “You’re brother can go with you to help with the luggage.”
Harlan Garrett stiffened in his chair. “That won’t be necessary, Murdoch.” It was struggle for the man to retain his composure. “I’m sure Scotty can do one simple thing without…”
Scott raised his right hand, halting his grandfather’s impending tirade. “My brother and I can combine a little business with pleasure,” he declared firmly. “I have some business I can do at the bank after I see you off, and…” he smiled across at his sibling, “…Johnny can help.”
Johnny was scratching his ear. He recognized a setup when he heard one, but he decided to play along. “You plannin’ a holdup, Scotty?” he asked innocently, completely straight faced. “I used to be pretty good at that.”
Everyone sitting at the table zeroed in on the younger man. Only Murdoch, Scott and Teresa knew he was joking.
Senator Seaton was the first to speak. “I really should be getting back to Sacramento,” he announced, clearly uncomfortable. He’d heard all the stories about Johnny Madrid Lancer and was now thoroughly convinced they were true. Although, under other circumstances, he would have welcomed the backing of a man like Murdoch Lancer, the appeal was gone. The last thing he needed was to be linked (no matter how much money might be involved), even remotely to a man who was failing in his attempt to reform his own son.
Murdoch shoved his plate away, signaling an end to the meal as well as the conversation. “Then it’s settled,” he said. The big rancher did an excellent job of hiding the relief. “Tomorrow, Scott will see to all the arrangements.” He stood up. “As for today…” he gestured toward the doorway.
Johnny stood up and grabbed a final biscuit. “Yeah, I know, Old Man. Chores,” he groused. He chanced a look at his brother. “You comin’?”
Scott shook his head. “Not yet,” he answered, smiling. “Not until I’ve gone upstairs and checked my -- our -- room,” he teased.
The younger man frowned. Scott had fussed at him for falling asleep the night before without getting undressed, and then had the nerve to insist he make his side of the bed even though it wasn’t all that mussed. “Whatever,” he muttered.
Murdoch called out to his youngest son. “Johnny.”
“Yeah?” When he saw his father’s frown, he tried again. “Yes?” Whatever came after the word was pretty much muffled by a gloved hand swiped across his mouth.
“I want those cubs gone, son. One way or the other, I want them gone. Understood?” The words came quietly, but with the firm resolve both Lancer sons had come to recognize as second only to the voice of God.
He wasn’t sure when the idea first hit him, but it was probably right after he’d been to Modoc Charlie’s cabin to pick up some gear. The old tracker had given him a beaucoup of advice on how to find and trap the cubs, along with a batch of potions and baits and the loan of a pack mule. Charlie had also provided a collapsible spring-triggered cage; just the right size for corralling the young kits.
So Johnny set the trap, just at the shallows above Ribbon Creek; baiting it with a generous supply of pemmican he’d soaked in something Charlie had called his ‘pacifyin’ potion’ and hunkered down.
It took a bit longer than he thought it would. His legs were beginning to cramp when the cubs came out of the thick underbrush together, the male taking the lead; its head lifting to test the wind. The animal dropped down a bit, suddenly still as a stone statue, and then --warily -- it began to slink towards the water’s edge. Johnny watched as the felines sated their thirst, fascinated by the compactness of their small bodies. He loved watching wild things. It didn’t matter if they were at rest, on the hunt, or even in the macabre process of making a kill: somehow, it was the only time he believed there was a God. Because, how else could something so close to perfection exist?
He’d hidden the cage well; covering the stout bars with shrubs and clumps of matted reeds from beside the stream. Modoc Charlie had shown him how to rig the bait to the spring loaded mechanism that would trigger the door; the trap not all that different from the simple snares he had used as a kid to catch rabbits.
The cats, he knew from recent experience, were a hell of lot smarter than the jackrabbits, though. In fact, the felines were downright devious. He watched as the male, now secure in its surroundings, padded softly across the sand in the direction of the place where he’d concealed the cage. The kit paused to swat at a dragon fly hovering above the water. Landing with its front paws splashing in the water, the cub quickly withdrew; then -- with its mate -- pounced back into the stream to paw at the fish that were spawning at the waters edge.
C’mon, damnit! Johnny coaxed mentally. All that splashing in the water was making him want to piss, and he had to really concentrate. He had the niggling thought that the cubs knew he was watching them; that they were purposely toying with him because of the fandango at the house, and then shook the thought away.
He sucked in his gut as the male finally quit playing in the water and headed further down the stream bed, the female padding softly behind him. The animal was headed right toward the trap. Johnny held his breath. Modoc Charlie’s ‘pacifyin’ potion’ had a distinctive odor; something akin to putrefying animal flesh, a sure thing to attract a scavenger, and it was now working on the young cats.
The male entered the cage first, intent on the dosed pemmican, the female so close at its heels her head was almost jammed up its sibling’s rear end. The male turned to take a swipe at its sister’s nose; both kits ramming against the trigger mechanism at the back end of the cage. The door snapped shut.
Elated, Johnny rose up from his hiding place and sprinted towards the caged cats. He stood for a time, hands on his hips, watching as the kits -- only momentarily distracted by his presence -- began to quarrel over the strips of dried beef.
By the time Johnny had taken care of his own business -- he was sure now his bladder was going to explode -- both cubs were completely passed out and asleep. He stood, looking at them for a time, listening to the purr-like snore as the cubs sleep deepened and they slid into a blissful unconsciousness. ‘It’ll put ‘em out for about a day,’ Charlie said. ‘They’re gonna wake up real hungry and with one hell of a hangover…’
Scott had become pretty good at sneaking up on his younger brother. Of course, he still took the precautionary measure of ducking behind something solid before he called out. So, from behind one of the 12 x 12 beams that supported the main door to the large tool shed, he reached out a long arm to tap his sibling’s shoulder and ducked. “So, are you going to help me get those trunks on the coach, or not?”
Johnny spun immediately to his right, his right hand immediately going behind his back. “Real funny, Scott!”
Eyes narrowing, Scott stepped out from behind the timber. “What have you got there?” he asked, pointing.
“Nothin’.” Johnny backed up, dancing a bit to avoid the litter that was scattered on the packed earth floor.
Scott reached out with both hands. He grabbed his brother beneath the arm pits and began tickling.
Instinctively, Johnny dropped what he had been holding and grabbed at his brother’s wrists. “Jesus, Scott!” he laughed, out of breath.
“It’s probably a good thing I don’t give away your secret,” the blond snorted. “Johnny Madrid, ticklish. Next thing you know, some schoolmarm will call you out and tickle you to death in front of God and everybody. Imagine having to explain that to Val!” He bent down, scooping up the searched for item at Johnny’s feet. He held it up for inspection. “A hand drill?” he asked.
“Knocked it off the workbench when I was lookin’ for somethin’,” the other replied. Before his brother had the chance to think about it, he continued. “Jelly and me already took care of the trunks.”
Fingering the drill bit, Scott nodded. “In that much of a hurry for my Grandfather to leave?” he asked. He put the tool back in its proper place on the work table.
“I was up early,” the younger man answered. “The Old Man caught me before I got out the door and made me do it.” It wasn’t too much of a lie. He grinned up at his brother. “Got the horses saddled,” he announced.
Together, the two young men headed out of the shed. Feeling a tad guilty, Johnny reached out, pulling his brother to a quick stop. “Hey, Scott. About your abuelo (grandfather)…” He shrugged.
“Grandfather takes some getting used to, Johnny,” Scott said, thinking of the years he had spent getting used to his grandfather. Deep inside, he knew he had never really achieved that particular goal. Harlan Garrett was a highly evolved creature: at times a doting surrogate father; more often than not, a cold elitist that never made a move without first carefully calculating the immediate or eventual outcome. He shook the thought away. Still, Johnny had been a pain in the ass ever since the older man’s arrival. “Things will probably go better the next time he visits,” he proclaimed. He gave his brother’s back a quick pat and resumed walking.
Johnny stood rooted to the spot where they had been standing. “Next time!?” he yelled. “What the Hell do you mean, ‘next time’!?”
Eyes shaded by the broad-brimmed Stetson, Murdoch stood in the front yard, watching as Harlan Garrett’s private coach departed. The sun was just coming up on the eastern horizon; giving the world a rosy glow, and the man was hoping it was a sign of a better day. God knows, I could use one.
Without turning to look at his youngest son, he spoke, the words coming softly and with a hint of humor. “Do you plan on catching up with your brother before he gets to Green River, or after Harlan’s train has departed?”
“I’m goin’,” the younger man retorted. He was chewing on his storm strings; thoughtful. “You think Scott was kiddin’ when he said Ol’ Harlan might be comin’ back for another visit some time?”
Murdoch’s lips were twitching. “We can only hope,” he answered. Then, turning to face his younger son, he reached out, “The cubs, Johnny.” From the tone of his voice it was more than clear that he was not letting his son off the hook. “Have you taken care of that situation? Are they gone from Lancer?”
Johnny watched as the large brougham passed under the arch. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he answered. “I disposed of ‘em, just like you said.” Without another word, he mounted the palomino and headed out.
They were relaxing in the Great Room, enjoying the first evening in what seemed like forever without anyone but the immediate family in attendance. Teresa was sitting on the edge of Murdoch’s ottoman, paging through the current copy of Godey's Lady's Book, occasionally holding up a picture for Scott to see as she asked for his opinion regarding the latest fashions. Murdoch was catching up on the Sacramento newspapers. Scott -- in between the fashion commentary and a few well chosen questions from his father regarding current pending legislation -- was setting up the chess board. Johnny was helping his brother, purposely screwing up the layout and laughing when his brother popped his hands as he castled the black king and rook before play had even begun.
“White or black?” Scott asked politely.
“I feel like bein’ the white knight, Scotty,” Johnny teased. Deftly, he reached out, turning the board around without disturbing one piece. “You can be the dark knight for a change.”
Teresa put down her catalog. She spied a book sitting on the couch at Scott’s left leg and reached out. “A Tale of Two Cities,” she read, fingering the gilt-trimmed lettering.
Scott watched as Johnny made his first move. “Yes. I’ve been trying to read it,” he smiled, “but someone--” he glanced at his brother “--keeps interrupting every time I pick it up.”
“You could read it now, brother,” Johnny made his usual first move, “save you the embarrassment of getting’ your ass whipped…” he paused, “…again.”
“If I remember right, Johnny,” Scott intoned, “we’re even. This is the tie-breaker.”
“That’s what I said, big brother.” He leaned in, his lips close to the blond’s right ear, “I’m gonna beat your ass.”
“Boys,” Murdoch warned. He would never admit it, but things seemed to be getting back to normal, and he was determined to enjoy it. Reaching out, he took his pipe from the rack and began filling the bowl.
Teresa was shaking her head. The bickering had begun. She handed the book she was holding to her guardian. “I’ve never heard this one, Murdoch.” The smile was the one she always used when she was about to wheedle something out of the older man or her siblings. “You could start from the beginning, and we could all,” she stressed the word with an over-the-shoulder glance at her dark-haired brother, “enjoy it.”
Ignoring Johnny’s dramatic sigh, Murdoch took the proffered book. He opened the volume and began to read, the scent of his tobacco sweet on the air. “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”
As if on cue, there was a light rap at the front door, and then the sound of Jelly’s voice as the old man came in from the hallway. As usual, the old man was practically doing a jig when he entered the room. He was waving something above his head. “Got a telegram here for you, Scott,” he huffed. “Jack Kirby caught me comin’ out of…” his face flushed at his choice of words, and picked his next more carefully “…ran into me when I was escortin’ Miz Winslow home after dinner. Said I was to give it to right away.” He was standing next to Murdoch now, and leaned down to whisper in the other man’s ears. “It’s from Garrett,” he announced, the words coming with a mixture of disgust and dread.
Scott rose up from his seat on the couch; careful not to disturb the chess board. Reaching out, he took the envelope from Jelly’s fingers, a frown coming as he felt the bulk. His Grandfather was just as notorious as Murdoch when it came to thriftiness; both men famous for their ability to squeeze a penny and get two cents change. He began to read, silently.
“Scott?” Murdoch watched in alarm as his elder son’s face suddenly went stark white only to just as quickly turn a deep red.
“It’s from Grandfather,” Scott answered. “He’s been…detained…just outside of Virginia City.” He continued to read, giving a condensed version of what was written, his temper rising. “It seems there was some disturbance in the baggage car, and…” He dropped the missive at his father’s feet. “Johnny!” he roared.
The place where Johnny had been seated was vacant, the chess board a stark reminder of his sudden departure. Beyond the blue over-stuffed chairs, the French doors stood wide open, the dark red draperies lifting slightly in the breeze.
Scott headed for the open doors, his long legs carrying him across the room; Teresa tagging along behind as she grabbed at his sleeve. “Scott!”
He turned to look at her for a brief moment. “Tell me again why I can’t kill him?” he growled just before he tore free.
“Because he’s your brother!” she shouted, watching as her Scott disappeared into the darkness. There seemed to be a need for a better argument. “Your only brother!!”
Murdoch bent down, picking up the discarded telegram. He was aware of Jelly hovering nervously at his shoulder. Teresa had returned to her place beside his chair and was settling back down. “It seems someone,” he struggled to hide the grin that was pulling hard at the corners of his mouth, “put a pair of mountain lion cubs in one of Harlan’s trunks. They managed to claw their way free and got loose in the baggage car…”
Johnny watched from his perch in the tall oak tree as his brother stormed toward the barn. Aware that Scott had been right behind him, he had scrambled up the trunk just as his long-legged brother had rounded the corner of the house. He knew from Scott’s posture and precise, military stride his sibling was really pissed, and he struggled hard not to laugh out loud. Twice, Scott called out to him.
As if he was stupid enough to answer!
He had hoped the cubs would stay asleep longer. He’d been pretty careful about how he’d handled it; had even drilled air holes in the back side of the trunk and tossed in a bit more of the spiked pemmican. A nice cushion on top of a couple of Harlan’s flannel night shirts…Hell, the only thing that had been a problem was water. But he’d even figured a way to pull that off; mostly because he wanted the kits to piss up a storm.
But what he hadn’t figured on was the cubs wakin’ up quite so soon. He’d done the math. According to what Modoc Charlie had told him, the kits should have been out for a full day; plenty of time, Johnny figured, for the train to get as far -- maybe -- as St. Louis.
The young man sighed, grabbing a twig and chewing on it a bit as he watched Scott stride purposefully out of the barn. His brother was heading for the bunkhouse, a quick in and out; and then on to Cip’s house. Johnny changed his position, shifting so that his butt rested in the wide crotch where the oak’s trunk split, his legs resting against one limb, his back pressed against the other; hunkering down a bit and wishing he had grabbed his jacket. He had a feeling he was going to be stuck here for awhile.
That thought was reinforced when he realized Scott was standing directly below him. He peered down at the ground, frowning a bit when Murdoch joined his brother and handed him a coat.
Scott slipped his arm into the sleeves and pulled the jacket up across his shoulders, welcoming the warmth. “I hope you aren’t here to ask me to show mercy,” he breathed.
Murdoch took a long draw on his pipe, considering his answer. “He did dispose of the cubs,” he offered.
The blond snorted. He was in no mood for jokes; even small ones. “They arrested him,” he announced. “My Grandfather!” He was still having difficulty comprehending what his Grandfather had written. Not that Harlan Garrett had seen the inside of any jail; his influence spread too far for that to ever happen, but still…
A large cloud of blue-gray smoke drifted up from the older man’s pipe. Above him in the tree, his youngest son stifled a sneeze; hoping to God the old wives’ tale about your eyeballs popping out if you suppressed one wasn’t true. Murdoch’s deep voice rumbled from the darkness, muted by the pressure in the younger man’s ears. As much as the Scot hated to say the words, he said them. “Whatever it takes to fix this, Scott, I will take care of it.” What he was thinking was how happy he would have been if Harlan had actually been tossed in a cell, and then hung.
“I’m not letting Johnny get away with this,” Scott announced; but his tone was somehow different from before. Visions of the lion cubs reeking havoc in the baggage car were beginning to form in his mind; remembrances of the mayhem in Johnny’s room bringing a tiny smile. “I will get even,” he promised.
Murdoch emptied the grey ash from his pipe, tapping the bowl lightly against the trunk of the tree. “Scott…” He shook his head. “We’ll discuss this tomorrow.” With that, he turned and headed back for the house.
Scott sat down on the round bench that encircled the base of the large tree; his long legs stretched out before him. He leaned back slightly. “You can come down now,” he said, his voice fairly dripping honey.
Even though his brother couldn’t see him, Johnny shook his head. “Don’t think so,” he said. He shivered a bit, his breath forming a small white cloud on the cold night air.
“Fine,” Scott said. He crossed his arms across his chest. “I can wait, you know.”
Johnny said nothing. He was already scoping out the limbs of the tall tree; gauging the distance from the upper branches to the roof of the house. Noiselessly, he pulled off his boots, securing them in a hollow that had served as a squirrel’s nest the previous fall. Maria was going to be pissed about his dirty socks, but, oh well.
Scott was settling in on the bench; making himself more comfortable. “Sleep well, little brother,” he called.
Stealthily, Johnny was making his way up the higher boughs, moving with the agility of a cat. When he dropped down onto the tiled roof, he made no more noise than the skittering of a mouse. Grinning, he headed diagonally upwards, towards Scott’s bedroom window. What the hell, he thought. He’d done it before; he’d do it again.
Stripping down to nothing but the bottom of his long johns, Johnny stuffed his clothes through the grillwork. Sucking in, he stuck his head and shoulders between the middle bars, and snaked through; dropping quietly head first onto the carpeted floor, instinctively tucking and rolling.
Without bothering to grab a nightshirt, he pulled back the heavy bedspread and crawled in between the covers. It didn’t take long for the thick mattress and bulky blankets to warm up below and above his body, and he snuggled in. You sleep well, brother, he snickered; thinking of Scott. It was going to be cold tonight, and Scott was going to freeze his ass off.
Turning over on his belly, Johnny sprawled out on the bed; making a conscious effort to take his half right out of the middle. He was just drifting off to sleep when the bedroom door creaked open, and a long, lean shadow spread across the floor.