Disclaimer: I’ve always been intrigued by the fan fiction where Johnny has this magical touch with animals and his propensity towards bringing home strays; and couldn’t help but think what might happen if he “found” yet another pet and it didn’t turn out quite like he thought it would.
Sorry about the cussing. Johnny is quite house-broken yet.
Johnny put on his best smile; the one that made him look like he was ten years old and had just discovered a pony under the pile of horse manure beneath the Christmas tree. He was standing next to his brother; in fact had sidled up a bit closer. Just in case the Old Man decided to rip his head off. “C’mon, Murdoch,” he grinned. “He followed me home.”
Scott choked back a laugh. “And you don’t suppose that has anything to do with the way you were dropping bits of jerky behind us all the way home,” he murmured, canting his head to whisper into his brother’s ear.
Murdoch was frowning. It wasn’t his usual someone is in big trouble grimace. No, it was more the expression that graced his countenance when he was bidding against Aggie Conway at the horse auctions: as if he was contemplating his next move, which was generally a higher bid. He stroked his chin, cocking his right hip a bit as he surveyed the dog.
Johnny was pretty damned good at reading people; but the Old Man had been -- and still remained -- an enigma. He was never really sure just what it was Murdoch was thinking, and it annoyed the hell out of him; made him twitchy. Nervously, Johnny cast a long look at his brother and then, sensing no help at all from that quarter, turned his gaze back on his father. He was about to speak when the Old Man piped up.
“English mastiff,” Murdoch said finally, the words rolling up from deep within his chest. “From the looks of him, a purebred.” He allowed a brief smile to tease the corners of his mouth; not missing the way his younger son let out a long breath. Johnny and his strays, he mused. Not that he was going to make it easy on the boy.
The dog was huge. Murdoch rightly guessed the animal was young; and not quite fully mature, although almost there.
There was thirty inches at the shoulder and close, the man reckoned, to one hundred eighty pounds. The dog’s color was a soft gold that was almost pink-tinged like the sky on a late fall afternoon; its face a black mask that set off pecan brown eyes.
Murdoch reached out to pat the dog’s head. To his surprise, the animal suddenly rose up on its hind legs, both front paws coming to rest on his shoulders, the dog’s nose even with his chin. He smiled. “I had one once,” he said, turning to look at his sons. “When I captained the Enchantress.” The smile grew. He was glad now that he had shared the stories of his time at sea with his sons; and this was just one more opportunity. “In spite of his breeding, he had a real aversion to Englishmen. I called him Caesar. ”
Scott smiled at his father; turning slightly to share a look with his brother. Murdoch was a great fan of Shakespeare as well as history and often read aloud to his sons and ward in the evenings. The blond turned his gaze on Teresa, who had just come out the front door.
The girl had a bemused smile on her face. “Johnny?” she asked, spying the dog and looking up at Murdoch; her smile growing when the man nodded his head. She’d never seen such a large dog.
Murdoch had both hands on the dog’s neck and was gently working his fingers against the folds of skin behind the animal’s ears. The dog suddenly whimpered; prompting a closer examination by the Patrón. An unnatural furrowing in the animal’s skin -- a series of abrasions -- caused the man to frown. The wound had the appearance of a rope burn. “Johnny,” he chided; a mock severity in his tone as he indicated the finger-thick scrapes in the dog’s hide, “I thought you said he followed you home.”
Johnny’s cheeks colored and he was staring hard at the ground drawing circles in the dirt with the heel of his boot. “Aw, hell, Murdoch,” he sighed. “He was tryin’ to herd those heifers we turned out with the seed bull. Couldn’t see him getting’ hurt, so I kinda coaxed him out of the field.”
Scott laughed outright. He knew Johnny had roped the dog after he had plied the animal with the beef jerky. However, the dog hadn’t fought the riata.
“You got somethin’ to say, brother?” Johnny snapped. His mood was rapidly deteriorating, not helped by the fact he might have actually caused some injury to the animal.
“Not me,” Scott replied, raising his right hand. He turned to his father. “I don’t think Johnny’s the one who caused those marks,” he said, approaching the dog. Gently, he patted the animal’s broad back.
Murdoch was still petting the dog; using both hands to stroke the animal’s sides. Other than the abrasions on the animal’s neck, the mastiff was in reasonably good shape and obviously well fed. “His owner may have kept him tethered,” he said, making no effort to hide the contempt in his voice. And then, to the dog, “Down.”
The mastiff immediately dropped to all fours but remained standing at full alert in front of Murdoch; its tail slowly wagging as if it was awaiting another command.
“And what now?” Scott asked.
“We’ll keep him here,” Murdoch answered. “Make some inquiries in town; at the neighboring ranches.” His eyes narrowed. “Perhaps that family from San Francisco who just purchased the Monroe farm.”
Johnny had sidled over to where his father and brother were standing with the dog. This was working out far better than he had anticipated. Usually when he brought home strays, Murdoch raised all kinds of hell until he figured out a way to con the Old Man into believing the creatures had always been around; or had just shown up hungry and injured at the front door. He reached out to pat the dog’s head; frowning when the animal’s upper lip curled into a very Murdoch-like frown. “So where’s he gonna stay?” he asked.
“Pretty much wherever he wants to,” Scott grinned. It was amazing just how large the dog actually was.
“In the house,” Murdoch announced. He turned and headed for the front porch.
Mouths agape, Scott, Johnny and Teresa watched as the big dog followed their father into the hacienda.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It had been more than a week. The mastiff had become a seemingly permanent fixture on the ranch. Everywhere Murdoch went, the big dog followed. It was as if the pair had been together forever.
Occasionally, however, there were times when Murdoch went on horseback and the mastiff was left behind. Usually, the dog sulked; planting itself in front of Murdoch’s leather chair or compacting itself in the leg space beneath the big desk. Other times, much to Johnny’s annoyance, the animal attached itself to Scott.
Like today. Johnny had been out with Paco and Mateo, checking the progress on the brood mares still pastured in the fields north of the house. Four of the mares were showing signs they were beginning to lactate; and the three young men had decided to bring the animals back to hacienda’s main paddock. The mares had not been happy to be separated from the main herd; and their cantankerous mood seemed to have been picked up by an equally disgruntled blue-eyed, dark-haired vaquero.
Scott watched as Johnny rode into the courtyard at a pace that would have set Murdoch off like a match to dry tinder. Sensing his brother’s mood -- the discontent radiating from Johnny like an aura -- he chose to ignore the transgression. He called out in greeting, surprised when his brother handed Barranca off to Manny, the young wrangler who handled the family’s personal remuda. “Long day, brother?”
Johnny was swatting at the yellow dust coating his calzoneras with his stetson. “Longer than yours,” he groused.
Scott was playing with the dog. He ignored his brother’s snide remark and tossed the hard rubber ball; watching as the big mastiff bounded across the yard in pursuit of the toy. “Perhaps we’ll trade work assignments next time,” he said. “You can wade through the schematics for the grist mill Murdoch and Jess Simmons are planning to build, and I’ll go play with the horses.” The mill was a radical design: both water and wind powered. It would be a first in the valley, but it was an expensive undertaking.
The dog had retrieved the ball and -- at a silent hand command -- dropped it at Scott’s feet. Before Scott had a chance to pick it up, Johnny bent down and scooped up the piece of hard rubber. He wiped the slobber off against his thigh, and then bounced the ball against his palm; thrusting his arm out to juggle the orb against his bicep and back into his cupped hand. He repeated the feat twice more, before catching the ball mid air. Cocking his arm back, he tossed the ball. “Fetch!” he ordered.
The dog didn’t move. It stood completely still for a moment, ears cocked; swinging its head to look in the direction the ball had gone before sweeping its head back in Johnny’s direction. And then the dog sat down.
“What the hell?” Johnny’s hands fisted at his hips. “Fetch,” he ordered a second time, jabbing a single finger in the direction he had tossed the object. The dog stood up; its forelegs going forward at an angle as the animal stretched and yawned. It contemplated the ball for a long moment, as if considering the command. And then the beast straightened, turned away from the young man and trotted back to the cool shadows of the front patio.
Johnny stared hard after the dog; giving the animal the full Madrid glare. The mastiff’s response was to simply ignore him and to make a series of circles before lying down on the large rug at the front threshold. “What the hell just happened?” he demanded, turning to look at his brother.
Scott shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he answered. “He’s been doing quite well,” he continued. “Fetching the ball, shaking hands. I’ve even gotten him to play dead.”
Johnny’s hand drifted to the butt of his revolver; the utilitarian Remington Murdoch had purchased for him after a discussion regarding the Colt. “I’ll teach him to play dead,” he muttered.
Scott grinned across at his sibling, his eyes dancing. “Face it brother. You’ve lost your touch. Your stray has bonded with our father and not you.” When he saw Johnny’s frown deepen, he tried again. “Well, you are the one who decided the animal needed a home, you know. I thought you’d be happy.” Dipping his head, he bit his lower lip to stop the smile. “You need to go get the ball,” he said; nodding to the place where the toy had landed.
“Like that has a chance in Hell of happening,” Johnny snorted. He turned on his heel and headed towards the house.
Scott fell in behind his brother. He watched as Johnny approached the front door; saw the slight hesitation as his brother pulled up short at the threshold. Johnny, he knew, was simply planning his next maneuver in what was obviously about to become a full scale war.
Johnny had decided to take command. “Move,” he ordered; giving the dog a nudge with the toe of his boot. “Now.”
The dog looked up at the youth, its mouth dropping open as it began to pant; its expression as guileless as a lamb. Then, as if it were about to comply, the beast stood up.
Johnny turned to smile up at his brother. “Lost my touch, huh?” he crowed.
Scott’s eyebrows rose, almost disappearing beneath the sun-bleached hair which had fallen loose across his forehead. “Uh, Johnny…”
Pssssssssss. The sound came one with the distinct odor of urine.
Johnny immediately looked down; his mouth dropping open as he saw and felt the steaming piss against his pant leg.
Scott lost it. He collapsed against the tall pillar at his right; his head buried against his forearm, his shoulders shaking. Johnny was cursing in two languages. The dog, after scraping its hind feet against the tiled patio, was already stalking towards the barn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Supper had been a quiet affair, considering Johnny’s attitude. His earlier mood hadn’t improved when Maria decided it was his fault the dog had pissed at the threshold, and then made him clean up the mess. Teresa had been on him, too, when she caught him taking a swipe at the dog with the mop.
Now, of course, the dog was in its usual place beneath the table; at Murdoch’s feet. Every so often, the big man would give the dog a tidbit from his plate.
It was the bribery, Johnny reckoned; catching a subtle movement as Teresa’s hand disappeared beneath the table. She had trimmed the cooked fat from her pork chop and was daintily hand-feeding the mutt. Well, he thought, three can play this fuckin’ game. Using his fork to explore his plate, he settled on a nice bit of tender pork closest to the bone and -- picking up his knife -- cut it free.
Waiting until everyone’s attention was focused on Murdoch, who was talking about a new two-year old filly Aggie Conway had just acquired; Johnny slipped his hand from the table. He grinned as he felt the dog’s nose against his finger tips; aware of the snuffling sound as the animal explored the bit of pork. Purposely dropping his fork, he bent down to retrieve it from the floor, and came eye-to-eye with the mastiff.
The dog returned his stare. Johnny felt the momentary flush of victory as the animal gently mouthed the piece of meat and took it from his fingers. Still looking deeply into the young man’s eyes, the mastiff chewed once; twice.
And then it spat the piece of meat onto the floor.
Johnny rose up; the dishes on the table rattling as he hit the back of his head on the hard oak; stars appearing before his eyes. He swore, loudly, his right hand rubbing furiously at the tender knot at the base of his skull. “Conchetumare!”
Maria entered the dining room in time to hear Johnny’s outburst; a tray of desserts balanced against her right arm. The flat, oval platter contained four generous servings of flan, and a single large oatmeal cookie.
Murdoch watched as his son’s head came up from beneath the table; the damask cloth hiding the boy’s features until he was once again fully erect in his chair. “John,” he muttered, the single word filled with censure. The curse had been particularly foul.
Johnny’s cheeks flushed. He’d gotten much better about not swearing after a trip to the upstairs water closet and a mouth full of Murdoch’s shaving soap; but there were times when he still slipped. And, dammit, his head hurt. Stupid dog. “Sorry,” he murmured. “Hit my head.” There was a brief hesitation. “It hurt.” He perked up a bit when he saw the dessert tray.
One by one, Maria passed out the servings of the still warm caramel flan. Murdoch first, then Teresa, then Scott. Pointedly, she ignored the younger man; who was sitting with his spoon at the ready. The crowning insult came when the housekeeper clucked softly to the dog and hand fed the animal the saucer-sized cookie.
It was, Johnny knew, pointless to even ask for the dessert. Fine, he thought darkly, watching as Maria turned and headed back for the kitchen. I’ll just get it after she goes to bed.
And the rest of the damned cookies, too.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They had retired to the Great Room after supper. In the flickering firelight, the family appeared like a vignette in a well- rendered portrait of a close knit clan of loving individuals who had enjoyed a life free of stress and conflict. The young woman was bent over her needlepoint; the elder son relaxed and absorbed in an open book, the youngest son -- seated cross-legged at the hearth -- meticulously plaiting thin strips of soft leather. As for the patriarch, the older man was completely at rest reading his newspaper, a halo of blue-grey pipe smoke above his head; his dog at his side, the animal’s massive head resting atop his knee.
Johnny cast a dubious glance at the apricot-colored mastiff; frowning when the dog appeared to be smirking at him. Fine thing, he thought, damned dog pisses on me, and he still gets dessert. His eyes narrowed as he glared at the dog. If it wasn’t for me, pendejo, you’d be eatin’ grasshoppers for supper and drinkin’ dirty water out of sinkholes, he fumed; hoping the dog could read his mind. Hell, it worked with Barranca.
Thing was, though; Barranca actually liked him.
The young man’s frown deepened. There wasn’t an animal on the ranch he hadn’t been able to cajole into compliance. Well, except for that damned rooster that belonged to Mamácita; but that bastard didn’t cut anyone any slack. He shook the thought of the strutting cock out of his head, and concentrated again on the dog.
There was no way in Hell some stupid damned dog was going to put him off. Especially one that was kissing every one else’s ass. Nope. Not happenin’. He didn’t give a damn Scott, Maria and T’resa had been won over by the big brute just as bad as the Old Man; this shit was gonna stop. One way or the other.
Johnny decided to turn on more charm. Moving closer to his father’s chair, he reached out; using one finger to scratch the dog’s nose. The dog shifted position.
Scott’s eyes lifted from the book he was reading; his head coming up slightly as he studied his brother’s face. Johnny had that look about him; the one that usually was a harbinger of some mischief or outright trouble. “Murdoch,” he called out softly, hoping to divert his brother’s attention. “Any news about the dog from the outlying ranches?” He was careful to keep his tone neutral.
Murdoch looked up from his newspaper. “Aggie spoke with the Ferguson’s,” he said. He clarified. “The family who purchased the Monroe place. They have two collies for working the dairy herd; but that’s it.” He shifted in his chair; moving a bit to ease the place in his hip where a shard of lead from Pardee’s bullet still remained. “Val said there haven’t been any inquiries on the notices we put up in Green River, and Gabe said no-one in Spanish Wells has reported any missing animals.”
Scott was still watching Johnny’s face. “And the constable in Morro Coyo?” he asked; hopeful.
Murdoch folded his paper and laid it across his lap. “Nothing,” he answered. Reaching out, he stroked the mastiff’s broad neck; smiling as the dog tilted into his touch. “Val said if no one steps forward to claim the dog by the end of the month, I’m free to do with him whatever I want.
“He suggested I keep him.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Silently, he filed away what his father had just said; reminding himself he would be making a point of thanking Val for his dumb suggestions. “So are you? Keepin’ ‘im?” he asked.
There was a long moment of silence. “I’m considering it,” Murdoch finally answered. “You did bring him home,” he reminded. “Do you have a problem with that, son; my keeping the dog?”
Johnny’s fingers were drumming one-two-three-four against the thick carpet beneath his butt. Shit! he fumed. Aloud, too quickly, he replied “Nah, Murdoch. Why the Hell would I care?” He shrugged. Grinning up at his father, he reached out; crooking his fingers to scratch the dog’s neck; at the same time making contact with his father’s knee.
The dog growled.
“Mind his neck,” Murdoch scolded. “I think it’s still sore.”
Sore my ass, Johnny stewed. He was now eyeball to eyeball with the mastiff; studying the baleful expression. You may have the Old Man snookered, dog, but you ain’t screwin’ with me.
Scott sighed; a rush of air coming as he contemplated his brother and the dog. It was like watching two siblings competing for their parent’s undivided attention. The mastiff had positioned itself at Murdoch’s right knee; Johnny was sitting Indian-style at Murdoch’s left. Dog and boy, the two were staring daggers at each other across Murdoch’s lap.
Well, this is going to be interesting, Scott mused. He picked up his book and resumed reading. As a betting man, he wasn’t sure this time who he’d put his money on; his brother or the dog.
So far, the dog seemed to be winning.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The days were passing with incredible speed as the end of the month approached. Johnny and the dog were still at war; guerilla warfare. At first, the forays were minor skirmishes. Johnny was still attempting a wary truce, using everything in his usual bag of tricks: mostly food like pemmican and beef jerky, which he had successfully used when he was enticing the dog during their first encounter. Away from the house -- from the rest of the family -- the dog would accept the treats; even allowing an occasional pat.
But not in the house. In the hacienda, the mastiff was totally aloof. Johnny was convinced the dog was a master at fighting dirty. As proof he offered up a variety of arguments. To get him in trouble, the dog was stealing things out of the laundry basket and hiding them. Socks, the bottoms of his cut off underwear; the dark pants he wore when Murdoch insisted he dress up for company or church.
And then the damned cur stole his red shirt -- his red shirt -- right off the clothes line. Johnny had found the shirt buried in the pig sty.
Wisely, the young man kept his battles with the dog a private affair. It was a struggle, but the youth was pretty good at covert warfare, too. Around Murdoch, he managed to keep the dog at bay; even partially placated. There was no way in Hell some stupid dog was going to get the best of Johnny Madrid. So Johnny played the game; with cunning and his usual charm.
Until the last Saturday of the month.
Murdoch was not going to be home for dinner. A meeting in Green River regarding the building of a stockyard just north of town as an annex to the newly constructed railroad spur had been called by the town council and he was required to attend. He left the ranch shortly after the noon meal; asking Maria not to hold supper and requesting she leave a plate of her fried chicken for him to eat when he returned home.
The woman had assured the Patrón she would do as he asked, adding she would make sure his children were properly fed. True to her word, she prepared the evening meal; and called everyone to the table at precisely six o’clock.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Johnny! It’s not like we don’t have more fried chicken!” Teresa fussed.
Johnny was on his feet; standing behind his own chair. “He took that drumstick right off my plate,” he shot back. “And he licked up all the gravy!” Stupid dog could have at least eaten the green beans.
Teresa tossed her head; the dark curls at her ears bobbing as she rose up from her seat. “Well, we have more gravy, too,” she sniped. “It’s not like it’s going to kill you, just because he licked your plate.” She was shaking her head. “For God’s sake. You share apples with Barranca.”
Johnny’s face flamed a bright red. “You ever seen what that damned dog does with its tongue?” he snapped. “Just what it is he licks?” Picking up a biscuit, he plunked it at the girl.
Teresa ducked. Sometimes her brother could be such a…well, such a pain in the ass. “Stop that,” she ordered. She reached across the table and grabbed her sibling’s dish. “I’ll get you a clean plate and some more damned chicken!”
Scott, a bottle of white wine in his right hand, had just entered the dining room. “Teresa!” he called out sharply, surprised at the girl’s language. Reaching out with his free hand, he grabbed his brother’s arm, just in time to stop the young man from launching another biscuit bombardment. “Stop it, Johnny! Right now!!”
In the background, the mastiff began to bark. Scott turned to the dog. “Lie down and be quiet!” he clipped. The dog immediately dropped to the floor and shut up.
Johnny yanked his arm away from his elder brother. The fact the mastiff had obeyed Scott’s command did nothing to improve his mood. “That damned dog swiped the chicken right off my plate,” he complained. “Licked all the gravy off the potatoes, too. Didn’t leave nothin’ but the damned green beans!”
Exhaling, Scott sat the bottle of wine down on the table. Then, using two fingers, he massaged the flesh just above the bridge of his nose. “Sit down,” he ordered. “Teresa will bring you more food, and the dog will stay right where it is.”
Stubbornly, Johnny shook his head. “I’m not eatin’ with that damned dog in here,” he fumed. “You so much as turn your head, he’s right up in your lap snitchin’ anything that ain’t nailed down.” His face blanched. “Jesus, he stuck his nose in my glass of milk!” He snatched another biscuit from the bread basket at the center of the table, this time lobbing it hard at the dog; angry when the mangy mutt caught the roll and swallowed it one mighty gulp.
Teresa came through the kitchen door just as the dog decided to seek out the source of the warm yeast rolls. The mastiff rose up from the floor, its nose twitching as it suddenly lunged towards the table; the animal not caring one mote it had just dumped an unsuspecting Johnny Madrid on his ass.
The dog landed on the table, all four feet attempting to gain purchase against the silken damask cloth. Gravity carried the animal’s bulk forward at a remarkable rate of speed, the mastiff’s ears flat against its head as plates; cutlery and crystal glasses cascaded to the floor. The animal was scrambling now; its sharp claws shredding the tablecloth and digging into the dark oak.
Teresa screamed as the mastiff careened across the top of the table; the collision inevitable as the dog suddenly soared into space, Johnny hot in pursuit. The plate of chicken, the bowl of mashed potatoes and the gravy boat Teresa had been carrying catapulted into the air as she was knocked over and backwards; her feet coming up as she landed on her rear end.
Murdoch came through the dining room door just as Johnny and the dog landed between Teresa’s legs and pinned her to the floor.
“JUST WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS GOING ON IN HERE!?” he thundered.
There was a scrabbling sound as Johnny, Teresa and the dog scrambled to their feet. The dishes Teresa had been carrying slammed hard against the floor; clattering one, two, three as the delicate china shattered.
A large glob of mashed potatoes was plastered to the ceiling, a sucking sound coming as the starchy blob formed a gooey stalactite and began its slow but predestined journey towards the floor. Droplets of thick gravy were already making their steady descent; along with several pieces of fried chicken that seemed to raining down from the exposed beams. Instinctively, Johnny’s hand shot out to catch a chicken thigh that was spiraling through the air. He missed. The dog did not. Its mouth snapped shut mere inches from Johnny’s outstretched fingers.
Maria, who had been behind Teresa and had narrowly escaped a similar catastrophe, straightened her skirt and then smoothed her hair. Always observant, she had seen Johnny hurl the biscuit at the dog. Angry, she addressed the Patrón; her voice whisper soft and each word perfectly enunciated. “Juanito lanzaba las galletas; en su hermana y el perro.” (Johnny was throwing biscuits; at his sister and the dog.) “Y Teresa maldecía.” (And Teresa was cursing.)
Murdoch's mouth opened; then closed. He turned from the bedlam that lay before him to face his elder son. Scott's face was expressionless; stoic. The young man simply shrugged. Sighing, the tall Scotsman turned to his younger son and his ward. "Great Room," he commanded. "Now!" When they didn't appear to be moving, he barked yet another order. "March!!"
Scott watched the retreat. Standing amidst the ruin, a blob of mashed potatoes suddenly plopping down from the ceiling to land atop his left shoulder, he pried the cork from the bottle of Riesling. Without even thinking about it, he passed the bottle off to the housekeeper, who raised the jug to her lips and took a long, satisfying swallow. When she handed the bottle back, he took a deep pull himself, wiping the magnum's lip with his sleeve before handing the container to the woman a second time. They stood shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence, sharing the alcohol until they were pleasantly oblivious to the mess.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer was a wise man, but he was relatively new to this full-time father thing; a fact that troubled him more than he cared to admit. However, he was also a rational man, and as such had already determined everyone was at fault; the only thing left now to determine the degree of guilt and just who had been the major perpetrator.
Heads hanging, the miscreants were lined up before him, in front of his desk. Johnny, Teresa and the dog. Now it was simply a matter of deduction; a process of logical elimination. He addressed Teresa first. “And just what was your part in this fiasco, young lady?” he asked.
The corner of Teresa’s mouth dipped in a slight frown, something petulant in the expression as she remembered the dog, the flying food, the broken china and the ensuing chaos. The dining room was going to take forever to put right. “All I did was scold Johnny because he was yelling at the dog; before he threw a biscuit at me.” Her brow furrowed slightly. “And I said ‘damn’,” she confessed softly. “I’m sorry.”
Murdoch considered her words, and then nodded his head. “Go,” he ordered.
Johnny looked up to watch as Miss ‘Just think of me as a sister’ flounced out through the door; his eyes narrowing as the dog got up to trot right behind her. Visions of mayhem kaleidoscoped through his fertile mind; dark musings of dead dogs and even deader sisters. The pleasant mental meanderings were rudely interrupted by the sound of his father’s voice.
“And just what do you have to say for yourself, young man?” Murdoch breathed. “Did you or did you not start this calamity by throwing biscuits at your sister and my dog?”
The youth’s head snapped up at the ‘my dog’ comment. “That son-of-a-bitch took a drumstick right off my plate, licked up the gravy, and stuck its nose in my glass of milk!” He grimaced. “Didn’t even touch the fu… damned green beans,” he groused.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said; the censure over the youth’s near slip evident in his voice. He decided to let it go. “That dog has never misbehaved at the table when we’ve had a meal; not once.” He hesitated, waiting for some response, and when none was forthcoming continued on. “Were you teasing him with the food?”
Johnny’s bottom lip jutted out; the pout coming. “I wasn’t teasin’ the fuckin’ dog,” he declared.
Murdoch’s head canted to the left; one eyebrow rising. “Excuse me?” he ground out.
“Why? You fart or something?” The words, filled with impudence, tumbled from the younger man’s mouth without any forethought, his temper getting the best of him. “And how come ain’t you at that damned meeting in Green River?” The last sounded like an accusation.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “The meeting was canceled,” he replied, sorry it had happened. Elbows on his desk, he tented his hands beneath his nose as he considered his next words. “I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt, son,” he murmured. His knuckles whitened as he flexed his fingers. “I am also going to assume you’ve had a difficult…” he paused, mentally counting to ten, then twenty, then thirty, “…day. However, until we have both calmed down to the point where we can discuss this rationally, you are going to go to your room. Now.”
Johnny’s back straightened; the belligerence evident in his stance and his demeanor. The fact he hadn’t eaten -- that the damned dog had scarfed down more food in the last half hour than he’d eaten the entire day -- didn’t help. “It’s Saturday, end of month and payday!” he sputtered. “Me and Scott are goin’ into town!”
There was a harsh squealing sound as Murdoch shoved back his chair; a single caster hanging up and scraping across the floor as he rose to his feet. “Correction,” he growled, no longer willing to tolerate his younger son’s impudence. “Scott may be going into town, young man, but you…” he thumped the desk with a rigid forefinger, “… most certainly are not!”
Scott stepped down into the room; the dog a shadow at his right side. “Johnny,” he cautioned; already sensing his brother had gone too far.
Johnny’s anger had found a new direction. “What?” He turned sideways as the mastiff brushed by his leg and headed straight for Murdoch’s desk; giving in to the urge to take a swipe at the animal’s hind end with his right foot. He missed, but that didn’t stop the dog from yelping like it had been jabbed with a spur.
The blond paused, purposely lowering his voice when he addressed his sibling. “You need to calm down,” he cautioned. “And -- if you’d care to remember -- I told you this morning at breakfast I had other plans for this evening.”
There was a chuffing sound as the younger man laughed. “Other plans,” he snorted. “A date with Rachel Fairchild?”
Scott’s back straightened. “Yes,” he said. “A date.” It was clear from his tone he had no intention of discussing the matter further; not here, and certainly not in front of Murdoch.
“So you’re still goin’ into town,” Johnny declared. “Well, I’m goin’ with you.”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. “You are not going into town, John.” His voice lowered to a near whisper. “Go…to…your…room.”
It was never a good thing when Murdoch Lancer got quiet. Scott held his breath; the dog immediately dropped to its belly and Johnny…
Johnny finally realized he had just ventured into that place where angels feared to tread. Muttering under his breath, he double-timed it out of the Great Room and stomped up the stairs to the second floor. As was his usual practice when he was angry he stormed into his room and slammed the door. Twice.
Murdoch watched as the chandelier above Scott’s head swayed back and forth; the glass chimneys tinkling. “I don’t know what’s gotten into that boy,” he muttered, “but he damned well better straighten up, and soon.”
Scott was at the drink table. He poured two equal measure of Glenlivet; extending his arm as he offered his father one of the crystal tumblers. A smile teased the corners of his mouth. “He’s having a little difficulty understanding why he’s failed to charm that dog,” he nodded at the mastiff, “the same way he’s charmed every other stray he’s managed to drag home.” The smile bloomed, his cheeks dimpling. “And,” he took a sip of the Scotch, “I think he’s jealous.”
Murdoch eyed his elder son over the brim of his glass. “Jealous?” His lips twitched in amusement. The thought had never occurred to him. “Of a dog?”
Scott nodded his head. “I told him I thought he had lost his touch,” he confessed. “I was teasing, but…
“You have to admit, sir. That animal is obviously quite taken with you, and -- for Johnny -- it’s become a bit of a challenge.” He smiled again. “It doesn’t help the dog has readily accepted Teresa and Maria; or me, for that matter.”
Murdoch was staring into his glass, the bemused smile still plastered across his face. “Jealous of a dog,” he murmured, shaking his head. He felt a familiar nudge at his knee, and reached out to pat the mastiff’s head. Unable to help himself, he laughed. “Perhaps this is a good thing, son,” he observed drolly. “Perhaps this one,” he patted the dog again, “just might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Scott considered his father’s words. “Or the one that breaks Johnny’s bad habit of latching on to every stray that manages to… follow him home?”
It was a standing joke between the two men; Johnny’s penchant for dragging home every unattached creature that happened to cross his path, claiming the animals had followed him. Scott lifted his glass in a salute to the heavens; as if he were making a prayer offering. “No more mountain lion cubs,” he breathed. “No baby squirrels.”
Murdoch picked up the litany. “No skunks, no wild horses.” He could only hope.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It was only eleven o’clock when Scott returned home from Green River. He took it as a good sign the house was quiet; that even Murdoch had retired for the night. Retrieving a book from the Great Room, he padded up the stairs and headed straight for his own room.
Stripping down to his underwear, Scott plumped the down pillows and slipped beneath the covers. Drawing his knees up toward his chest, he laid the open book against his slim thighs; opening the volume to the page where he’d left his bookmark. He’d just begun reading when he was aware of an agitated scuffling sound just beyond the door.
Preparing to rise, Scott threw back the covers. His bedroom door suddenly opened and Johnny backed into the room; quickly shutting the portal and then resting his forehead against the dark wood.
Scott leaned back in the bed; waiting. Johnny was dressed, but he was in a state of disarray. He was wearing his blue flowered shirt -- the one he referred to as his ‘get lucky’ shirt -- the tails not quite tucked in. The fabric was bunched at his back, and his calzoneras were hanging dangerously low on his hips.
There was a tear in the pants; a ragged triangle drooping just below his left buttock, his bare skin pale against the dark leather.
“Looking for a needle and thread, brother?” Scott spoke up; his lips parted in a wide grin.
Johnny whirled around, his hand going to his heart. “Jesus,” he panted; surprised at seeing his brother. He shoved himself away from the door, a frown appearing as he turned back to look over his own shoulder; his hand drifting to his rear end. He fingered the torn leather. “Damned dog!” he swore. He turned, pointing to his back side. “Bit me,” he groused.
Scott pivoted off the bed and levered himself upright. Suppressing the smile, he crossed the floor and explored the tear in his brother’s trousers. Flicking the youth’s exposed behind with his middle finger, he made his diagnosis. “No teeth marks,” he observed solemnly.
“Yeah. Well it ain’t like he didn’t try!” Johnny brushed at the spot. “Son-of-a-bitch has got my boots, too.”
Scott’s right eyebrow arched. “And you would need your boots why?” he asked.
Johnny had turned back to the door. Cautiously, he opened it, just a crack. It was just far enough to allow the dog’s snout to poke through the opening; a loud growl sounding. Johnny pushed the door shut, wincing when it banged against the jamb. “Can’t go to town barefooted,” he snapped.
“Barefooted, bare assed,” Scott smirked, thumping the boy’s rear a second time. “A moot point since Murdoch said you were not to leave your room.”
Johnny smacked his brother’s hand. “Yeah, well what the Old Man don’t know…” he shrugged. Shouldering his way past his brother, he began cat-pawing around the room. “You got anything to eat in here?” he asked. Already, he was poking and probing among the objects on his sibling’s dresser.
As quickly as Johnny picked something up, Scott grabbed it and put it back in place. “No,” he answered. “Unlike some people, I’m content to leave the food in the kitchen where it belongs.”
The younger man was undeterred. He was opening drawers now, rooting through the contents. “Need something to distract that damned dog,” he muttered.
Scott was shaking his head. Johnny’s continuing explorations were beginning to annoy him and his patience was wearing thin. “Go to bed, Johnny,” he ordered.
“Goin’ to town,” the younger man grumbled.
“You are not going to town,” Scott declared. He grabbed Johnny’s arm and steered him towards the door.
Johnny bucked against his brother’s grasp. “Are you loco?” he hissed. “I can’t go out there. That fuckin’ dog…”
Scott gritted his teeth. He shoved his brother aside, opened the door, and peered out into the hallway. The dog was standing in the hall, midway between Murdoch’s closed door and Johnny bedroom door; one of Johnny’s boots hanging from its mouth. “Sit!” Scott whispered. The dog sat. “Stay.” He turned back to his brother, opening the door wider. “Go.” His tone was exactly the same as he had used with the dog.
Wary -- and more than a tad piqued at his brother’s bossy attitude -- Johnny stalked across the threshold. He stopped in the hallway to stare hard at the big dog; and then lunged at the animal in a feigned attack. The dog dropped the boot, leapt to its feet and the chase was on. Johnny made it through his bedroom door just as the mastiff made another grab for his rear end; the dog’s head smacking solidly against the heavy oak.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
A sudden whump woke Murdoch Lancer out of a sound sleep; the sound not unlike the noise of a bullet smacking against the hacienda’s thick adobe walls. He bolted upright in his bed, taking a deep breath as he realized there had been no sharp report prior to the noise that would have indicated rifle fire. Still, the sound was not the usual night-time noise that usually lulled him to sleep.
Shaking his head, he levered himself up from the bed; pausing just long enough to run his fingers through his hair, and then easing his feet into his slippers. His long robe was next, and he pulled it closed; securing the cord at his waist.
He opened the door and peered out into the hallway, his eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness. The first thing he spied was one of Johnny’s boots lying in the hallway; the second boot coming into view as he progressed towards the stairwell. He canted his head, aware of movement beyond the circle of light cast by the dimmed wall lantern; reaching up to take the small lamp from its bracket and adjusting the wick.
And then he saw the dog. The mastiff was standing at Johnny’s door; sniffing at the threshold and pawing at the base. Murdoch reached out; gently grabbing the animal by the scruff of its neck. “That’s enough,” he scolded, shooing the dog away.
He didn’t bother to knock on his son’s door.
Murdoch knew at once Johnny was not sleeping. The dead giveaway was the blankets; which were piled on top of the young man’s body, even covering his head. Johnny had all the modesty of a two-year-old, none at all; and with the coming of warm weather had an annoying habit of sleeping in as little as possible. More than once, he had come into the boy’s room to wake him only to find him sprawled out belly down on the bed; nothing but a tousled sheet covering his backside.
No. Johnny was not sleeping. There was mischief afoot, and Murdoch Lancer was determined to get to the bottom of it.
Reaching out, the tall Scot grabbed a hand full of quilt and yanked. “Would you care to tell me, young man, just exactly why you are wearing your pants?” he growled.
Aw, fuck! Johnny thought. He screwed his eyes shut; as if he truly believed if he couldn’t see the Old Man, he wasn’t really there. A solid smack to his leather-clad rear end proved otherwise. Sighing, the young man rolled over onto his back.
“Get up,” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny did as he was told. He rose up from the bed, feeling crowded when his father continued to hover. The need to flee tugged at the youth, and he stole a covert look at the doorway. Two disembodied amber eyes stared back at him from the darkness. Even more eerie was the sound of the dog’s panting. “Now what?” he sighed.
“Give me your pants,” Murdoch answered. He sat the lantern down on the bedside table.
Johnny’s head snapped up. “What?”
“Give me your pants,” Murdoch repeated. For once he was grateful his youngest boy had an annoying adversity for acquiring anything new despite the constant nagging of his family. “And that ‘get lucky’ shirt.”
The young man felt his cheeks redden. How the hell did the Old Man know that’s what he called the blue-flowered camisa? Reluctantly, he started unbuttoning the shirt; purposely slow.
“Now, John,” Murdoch said; wiggling his fingers at the boy. He watched as Johnny shrugged out of the garment. “Your pants.” More waggling of his fingers.
“I ain’t wearin’ any underwear,” Johnny muttered.
Murdoch snorted. As if that was any surprise. “Don’t worry, son. You haven’t got anything I haven’t seen before; or in greater abundance.”
Well, that sure in hell caused the family jewels to pucker up. Johnny felt his cajones wither; the sensation the same as if he had just canon-balled into the snow fed waters up at Ribbon Creek. His shoulders lifted in another deep sigh as he stepped out of the leather pants and handed them off.
Seeing something amiss, Murdoch shook the pants out, his eyebrow arching. He poked his hand through the tear, tsking and shaking his head. “Maria is not going to be happy,” he scolded. The housekeeper was forever mending Johnny’s clothes.
“Yeah. Well, tell her it was that damned dog.” He shivered and pulled the sheet from the bed, but not before turning around to display the left cheek of his butt. “Bit me,” he complained. “Got me right in the ass when I was…”
“Trying to sneak out of the house?” Murdoch finished; the reproach evident in his tone. He reached out to examine the damage. There was a slight discoloration; as if someone had pinched the boy’s behind. Feeling absolutely no sympathy, he smacked the spot with his flat palm.
“Hey!” Johnny scowled, the pout coming. He was rubbing his butt.
Murdoch ignored the outburst, picking up his son’s clothes and moving to the armoire. He opened the door and began removing the sparse contents. “I’ll bring your clothes back in the morning,” he intoned. He dug into the single bottom drawer, whipping out the bottom half of a new set of summer long johns. These he tossed to his son.
Johnny lowered his head, hiding a smile. The Old Man hadn’t checked his saddlebags, which were stowed on the floor of the closet. He kept a spare shirt, a pair of socks and an old pair of calzoneras in the pack. “Whatever,” he mumbled; instinctively catching the underwear.
Murdoch draped his son’s clothing over his forearm. “You will be attending church tomorrow,” he announced. “And then you and I will be discussing just what you will and will not be doing over the next few weeks.” He shut the closet door. “I can assure you it will be more than enough to keep you occupied and out of trouble.” His eyes narrowed as he swung his gaze toward his son. “And put on that underwear.”
Why not, the youth shrugged. Might not be a bad idea to put another layer of something between his ass end and the damned dog’s teeth. He did as he was told; aware his father was watching him the entire time. “Satisfied?” he asked, holding his arms out making a slow turn.
“Don’t push,” Murdoch growled. “Go to bed.”
Again, the young man complied. Not that he intended to be in the bed all that long.
Murdoch strode across the room to retrieve the lantern from the bedside table. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he said. And then, “We’re far from done with this, son,” he warned.
Johnny hunkered down in the bed. “Didn’t think so,” he said. Hung for a lamb, hung for a sheep, he figured. “‘Night, Pa.”
Too easy, Murdoch mused. It was almost a challenge. He reached out, patting his son’s shoulder; proud of himself and the way he had handled the situation.
Johnny turned over onto his back; watching as the Old Man headed out of the room. Sometimes, he actually missed the yelling. He stifled a laugh.
Murdoch stepped across the threshold, pausing slightly as he closed the door; frowning a bit when he heard Johnny’s soft laughter. He shook his head. I ought to just tan his backside; no beating, just something to get the boy’s attention. Johnny could be so damned hard headed at times.
He was aware of the dog then; the way the mastiff was still standing guard in the hallway. “Good boy,” he murmured, giving the dog’s head a good rub. He smiled. “Sit,” he ordered softly, indicating the spot right in front of Johnny’s door. “Stay.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny waited until he was certain his father had returned to his own bedroom. He kicked off the covers, rising up on one elbow before pivoting off the bed. Stretching, he smothered a yawn with his fist; using his free hand to scratch his belly. He hadn’t planned an all-nighter; but that had changed when his Old Man made the announcement about church. There was no way in hell he was going to sit still through a long sermon listing a whole bunch of rules; most of which he had already violated, one way or the other. Or was considering violating.
It took him a remarkably short amount of time to get dressed; and he chuckled aloud as he tightened the second buckle that secured the well-worn calzoneras. It was the same pair he had worn when he had returned home; a little tight now that he was eating regular meals, but still a good fit.
He frowned a bit as he shook out the shirt. It was pretty damned plain by his standards; white with dark embroidery, a gift from a much older woman in Tijuana. A grateful older woman. She had taught him how to kiss with his mouth open.
A familiar stirring in his groin brought him back to the present. Good thing Rosie wasn’t picky about what time he showed up at her door; or -- when it was really late -- at her window. If he was late enough, he might just catch her right after she had taken a bath.
He pulled on his socks, folding over the tip of the one with the hole at his big toe. It hit him then. No boots. He turned back to the closet, the scowl deepening when he saw the flat heeled dress boots. Sure in hell wasn’t gonna wear them. Rosie liked the sound of his spurs; he liked the way she played with the rowels. He smiled. Ten to one, Murdoch had found his boots in the hallway and had matched them up before leaving them outside his bedroom door.
Padding softly across the floor, he put his hand on the ornate door knob, turning it slowly and grimacing as he heard the latch slide. Carefully, he eased the door open.
The dog came immediately to its feet; the animal’s stance a grim indication of its mood. Its sides trembled as the deep growl rumbled from the depths of its throat; its jowls fluttering. The mastiff’s expression was somewhere between the beginnings of a toothy smirk and a less subtle but definitely threatening snarl.
Chingase, Johnny cursed under his breath. Cautiously, he leaned out across the dog’s back, looking up the hallway towards his father’s room. Real funny, Old Man, he fumed. Visually reconnoitering the corridor, he began considering his options. Sure enough, the Old Man had paired up his boots; they were just to the right of the door jamb. Locking his gaze on the dog’s face, he leaned farther into the hallway; using his right hand to slowly pick up the boots; never once breaking eye contact. The dog continued to watch.
It was now or never, the young man reckoned. Backing up, his boots in his right hand, he grabbed the door frame and pushed off. He cleared the dog’s back by a fraction of an inch, propelling himself forward and towards the stairs. The momentum carried him well into the hallway, close enough to the stairwell he was able to hop up on the broad banister and to push himself forward.
He hit his mark at the bottom of the stairs; resisting the urge to let out a great whoop, almost giggling as he headed for the front door.
And then he felt it; the dog’s teeth digging into the seat of his britches, the wet slobber turning to cold slime as it penetrated both his pants and his cotton underwear. Surrendering to his temper, he swung at the dog’s head with his boots. Big mistake. The dog yelped. And then it began to bark. Loudly. The animal wasn’t standing still, either. No. The damned son-of-a-bitch had positioned itself between him and the front door.
The next thing Johnny knew the dog was nipping at his butt, herding him towards the stairs. The young man was moving like greased lightening; his attention centered on the dog, on his attempts to avoid the dog. It wasn’t happening. He turned, taking the stairs by twos, and then looked up to gauge the distance to the open door of his room. “Shit,” he muttered.
Arms folded, Murdoch Lancer, was standing at the top of the stairs. Scott, his posture the same as his father’s; was standing to the older man’s right. Out of the damned frying pan right into the fire, Johnny thought darkly.
He felt himself being physically hoisted up the remaining two steps; his father grabbing one arm, his brother the other. His feet never touched the floor as the two men carried him across the hallway and directly into his own bedroom.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Church sucked. Johnny sat wedged in between his father and brother, sulking. Might as well have been handcuffed and shackled the way they were boxing him in. The only bright spot in the long morning was when the Widow Hargis screeched out the final Amen at the end of the last hymn; although Johnny was dead certain she had held the last note until she was totally out of breath.
Then came the reception line; the handshakes and small talk when the service was over. Reverend McIntyre was pretty adept at getting the line to move along, but it still seemed like forever until they got their turn.
“Nice to see you, Johnny,” the Reverend smiled, extending his hand.
Johnny nodded, accepting the man’s outstretched hand; silently wondering if God would strike him dead for the lie he was about to tell. “Nice being here, sir,” he murmured; unconsciously wincing as he waited for the lightning bolt. To his surprise, it didn’t happen. Maybe God was just waiting until he got outside.
He took a deep breath as they exited the narthex. The sun felt good on his face. He paused at the top of the stairs, finger-combing his hair before putting on his stetson. And then he felt Murdoch’s hand at the small of his back. Sighing, he fell in step with his father; moving down the stairs into the churchyard.
People were drifting off, breaking into their customary groups; the women seeking the shade beneath the trees. The men were congregating across the yard; close to the waiting buggies. In between the adults were the unattached young people; painfully aware they were being observed by both parents, but still managing to flirt. The smaller children were involved in subdued games of tag, mindful of their mothers’ admonishments to “stay clean”.
Johnny found himself searching for the Simmons’ twins, and was about to head in their direction when Scott tapped him on the shoulder and pointed towards the fence that bordered the parsonage. Murdoch was there, talking with Val. Realizing his brother was tugging on his sleeve, Johnny followed Scott as he headed towards where their father and the lawman were standing.
“Still no news,” Val was saying. He was unwrapping the cigar Murdoch had just offered him. “Gabe hasn’t come up with anything, and the constable over at Morro Coyo is drawin’ blanks, too.” He lit the cheroot, taking a long draw before continuing. “Looks like you got yourself a dog, Murdoch.”
The rancher was grinning. “He’s quite an animal,” he said, exhaling a series of perfectly formed smoke-rings. “Isn’t that right, son,” he asked, turning to his younger boy.
Johnny pulled a face; and then caught the look on Val Crawford’s countenance. Val was grinning like a jackass. “Yeah,” he answered. “Just great.”
His response prompted more scrutiny from the lawman. Val’s eyes had narrowed, a benign smile pasted across his face. “What?” Johnny snapped.
“Oh, nothin’,” Val drawled. “You managed to make ‘im a pet yet?” He asked the question like he already knew the answer.
Scott laughed. “No,” he replied, speaking for his brother. “Not exactly a pet.”
The lawman turned to face Murdoch. “The dog a problem?” he inquired innocently.
“I guess that would depend on whom you ask,” the Patrón answered. “I find he’s been quite…” he considered his next words, “…an asset. Certainly an excellent watchdog, and Johnny can attest to the fact the animal has great potential as a herder.”
“That right?” Val questioned, knowing there was a story here; one that would be worth retelling.
Scott shared a look with the lawman; his eyes dancing. “Are we still playing poker Wednesday night?” he asked.
Val nodded his head. “You bringin’ the kid?”
This time, Murdoch answered the question. “I’m afraid Johnny won’t be joining the game this week, Val,” he announced. The list of extra chores he had assigned his son was extensive and designed to keep the youth close at hand. “Or next week, for that matter. I, however, might be inclined to buy into the game.” With that, the big man excused himself. Aggie Conway had just called out to him, and he returned the greeting, moving out to join the woman. “Meet me at the buggy,” he called over his shoulder to his sons.
Johnny turned his attention to the lawman. “Thanks, pendejo,” he muttered.
Val flashed a toothy grin. He knew exactly what the boy was talking about. “Any time, boy,” he snickered, punching Johnny’s arm. “Like I told your Daddy, nothin’ better than a good watch dog on a ranch the size of Lancer. Especially one that’s good at herdin’.” He tapped the brim of his stetson and took his leave.
“We need to find Teresa,” Scott said. He reached out to tug his brother’s sleeve.
“Why?” Johnny snapped. “We leave her in town; maybe the Old Man can send the dog to fetch her. Any luck, they’ll both get lost.”
This time, Scott grabbed his brother’s arm. “Give it up, Johnny. It’s obvious Murdoch’s decided to keep the animal.” He risked a sly smile. “The matter is no longer open to discussion.”
Johnny shot his brother a hot glare. “Fuck you!” He kicked at a clump of grass. “I found that dog; I sure in hell can lose him.”
Scott shook his head. “We can always take a vote,” he jibed.
“Funny, Scott. Real funny!” He took off his hat and began swiping hard at the man’s head and shoulders.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny had made himself scarce until supper time. He would have skipped the meal, but Maria had caught him trying to sneak out the back door; and he was already in trouble with her for having missed lunch. She had grabbed him by the right ear, twisting a bit as she pulled him into the kitchen and then shooed him towards the dining room.
Squaring his shoulders, he sucked in a deep breath. He knew the damned dog was going to be in its usual place under the table at Murdoch’s feet; something -- like it or not -- he was going to have to get used to. Not that he was going to put up with any more shit from the fuckin’ mutt. It was bad enough the way life kept bitin’ him in the ass; without the damned dog chewin’ on his behind, too.
One way or the other, me and that dog are gonna come to an understandin’.
Filled with a new resolve, Johnny headed into the lion’s den. He even managed to put on a smile. Slipping into his seat just as the clock tolled the hour, he picked up his napkin; giving it a quick flick of the wrist. The corner edge of the crisp white linen flicked the end of the mastiff’s nose. “Ooops.” He leaned slightly to his right and apologized to the dog. “Sorry.” Sorry I didn’t pop you harder.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“So, you picked a name for him yet?” Johnny’s fork was hovering above his piece of roast beef. He’d stopped eating when he saw the Old Man hand feed the dog a piece of buttered bread. “Seems if you set on keepin’ him, he ought to have a name.”
Murdoch wiped his fingertips off against his napkin. “Well, son, I have been thinking about it,” he said. He reached for his coffee cup; took a long sip. “You do know,” he said, continuing, “that selecting a name for an animal requires some thought.” Grinning, he shared a wink with his elder son. Scott had taken forever to name his horse; something that had caused Johnny a great deal of consternation. The boys had actually come to blows over the situation; aggravated by Scott’s choice of name.
Scott had named the gelding Cheval. Johnny had been furious when he found out that Cheval was French for horse.
“Is that right?” Johnny drawled. He hadn’t missed the silent exchange between his father and his smart-assed brother.
For some reason, Murdoch found it necessary to use his napkin to dab at his upper lip. It took him forever to wipe at crumbs that weren’t even there. He finally composed himself enough to speak. “It’s like naming a child,” he said solemnly. His right eyebrow arched slightly as he nodded in Scott’s direction. “Your brother’s name was a compromise,” he said. “Harlan’s family name on his mother’s side is Prescott; quite prominent in New England history.” He smiled. “Prescott Lancer.”
Both young men were quiet for a long moment, and Johnny actually made a face. Scott was the first one to speak up. “Who did the compromising?” he asked, moving slightly as Maria refilled his coffee cup.
“Your mother thought the name was pompous. So did I.” Another memory came then; Catherine’s absolute faith she carrying a boy; and then the memory of his wife telling her father in no certain terms her son was going to have a first name that was uniquely his own. She softened the blow by telling Harlan the boy’s middle name would be Garrett in honor of the first man she had ever loved; and her father had simply melted. He smiled across at his elder son. “Harlan compromised. He gave you the name your mother wanted.”
Johnny was thoughtfully chewing on a piece of side meat. “And me?” he asked. There was nothing confrontational in his tone; just quiet curiosity.
Murdoch smiled, tenuously. While conversations with his sons about the past were much less stressful than they had been those first few months, it was not always easy to keep them from going awry. Still, he was willing to try. “You were born here at Lancer;” he said softly, “after California had become a state. You mother wanted to name you Juan, after a favorite uncle; and I had considered Ian or even Sean.” He paused to finish his coffee, carefully watching his son’s face over the brim of the cup before continuing. Johnny’s expression was benign. The man put down his cup. “And then…” His brow furrowed and he cleared his throat. “I wanted you to have a name that reflected your own heritage, Johnny, symbolic of a new country, not your mother’s or mine. We…” he stressed the word, “your mother and I agreed finally on John.”
The younger man nodded. “A compromise?” he asked; a hint of something intangible in his tone, a bit of an edge.
Murdoch nodded. “Your mother agreed on John; I agreed you would be raised Catholic,” he answered, keeping his tone neutral. He risked another smile.
Johnny’s mouth quirked up in a quick grin; one that surpassed his father’s. He could count on the four fingers of one hand the number of times his mother had ever taken him to Mass. Not that some of the village priests hadn’t stopped by a time or two for ‘donations’. He shook the thought away. “So, about the dog?” he asked. He cut a piece of beef from the fatty side of his slice of roast, making a big production of dangling the morsel in front of the dog’s nose. He knew the damned animal would refuse; but, hell, at least it would look like he was trying. Sure enough, the mastiff mouthed the piece of meat and then dropped it to the floor. “What’s his name?”
Murdoch was mopping his mouth again. “There are a lot of things to take into consideration,” he said; refolding the napkin and laying in neatly across his empty plate. He reached out, giving the dog’s neck a scratch. The animal leaned heavily into his touch. “He’s got a reasonable disposition,” he said, now gently scrubbing the dog’s ears with both hands. “And he’s excellent around the livestock.” A smile was sneaking across the man’s face, crinkling the skin at the corners of his eyes. He pushed back his chair to make more room for the mastiff.
Johnny was watching the big dog. He could have sworn he heard the animal purring. The mastiff’s huge head was resting comfortably against Murdoch’s left thigh; the pale brown eyes staring up into the man’s face with an expression of pure adoration. Its tail was sweeping back and forth across the floor; catching the piece of beef and pushing it to-and-fro across the once-clean tiles. Mamácita’s gonna have a cow when she sees that mess, perro! he fumed. You’re goin’ to catch such hell.
The housekeeper had just entered the room with the final pot of coffee. She came into the comedor (dining room) through the archway; from the side of the room closest to the Patrón’s chair. Suddenly, the sole of her leather huarache coming down on the piece of discarded meat, she lost her balance. Scott was immediately on his feet and at her side; his left arm going around the woman’s waist, his right reaching out to secure her hold on the handle of the coffee pot. He held on to her, gently, until she was steady on her feet and then -- bowing slightly -- backed away.
Maria placed the coffee pot on the table and then gracefully bent down beside Johnny’s chair to pick up the bit of roast beef. Delicately holding the meat between her thumb and forefinger, she speared the younger Lancer son with a particularly intense glare. “And you, niño, are throwing away good food why?” she asked.
“Wasn’t throwin’ it away,” Johnny sighed, feigning remorse. “I was just tryin’ to give the dog a treat. You know, like everybody else does.” He flashed the woman a brilliant smile. “Murdoch’s gonna keep him,” he announced. “In fact, me and Pa are just talkin’ about givin’ him a name!”
Maria looked askance at the youth; not believing for a minute he really cared if the dog had a name or not. The boy had already christened the dog, several times, in fact; although none of the appellations he had chosen could be voiced within his father’s hearing. Then, thinking of the two pairs of pants that had been added to her mending pile, she made a suggestion of her own. “Problema,” (trouble), she muttered under her breath; tiring of the game Johnny and the dog had been playing. She began refilling coffee cups.
Murdoch smiled up at the woman. “Maria,” he tsked, as if scolding her. He was stroking the dog’s head. “He’s not all that much trouble.”
Johnny picked up his napkin to stifle the snort. You’re not the one who had to clean up his shit this afternoon when he took a dump on the patio, he thought; remembering Maria’s tirade. “C’mon, Murdoch. The name?” God, the Old Man was worse than Scott. His eyes narrowed. “And it better not be any fancy foreign word for dog, either.”
Scott snickered and then, seeing his brother’s expression, quickly sobered. “Well, we’ve established he’s got a reasonable disposition, and that he does well around the livestock,” he reached out, using his forefinger to scratch the dog’s ear. “And he is a fast learner,” he offered, thinking of how quickly the animal had learned to fetch and shake hands.
Teresa bit her lip, and then added her two cents. “And he doesn’t talk back,” she piped up; recalling something Murdoch had said when his sons had first come home.
“Well, there is that,” Murdoch agreed, smiling at the girl’s clever play on words. He turned to watch his younger son’s face. Johnny was making another attempt to charm the dog; offering it more meat from his plate. The slice of beef was carefully wrapped around a stack of several steamed green beans.
Without moving from Murdoch’s side, the mastiff strained its neck to sniff at the proffered treat; but -- once again -- refused the young man’s gesture.
Murdoch realized now the animal had been totally indifferent around the youth right from the beginning. Until last night, he reminded himself. That memory brought a big smile and more words of praise. “He’s also an excellent watch dog,” he declared. “Good at his trade, so to speak.”
Scott almost choked on his coffee. He immediately sensed where the conversation was going and was inwardly delighted at the direction it had taken; at his father’s obvious good humor.
Johnny was only half listening to all the yammering; in fact, had stopped paying any real attention to what was being said as soon as everyone started listing the dog’s alleged attributes without making any headway regarding the choice of a name. Getting restless, he shifted in his seat and experienced a real need to change the subject. “And he’s gonna be sleepin’ in your room, right?” he asked.
Murdoch appeared to be considering the question. He shook his head. “No,” he said, his tone firm. “I think it would be selfish of me to keep the dog just to myself at night.” Stroking his chin with his thumb and forefinger, he hesitated and then resumed speaking. “I also think its safe as well as prudent to allow him free run of the house when we’re sleeping.”
What the fuck? Johnny thought. The last thing he wanted was that damned dog loose in the house at night! Especially since the Old Man had not only piled a shitload of extra chores on his back, but had also pretty much put him under house arrest. “Why?” he demanded.
Murdoch’s back stiffened, his eyes narrowing at his son’s tone. “Were you not listening, John?” he asked. “He’s an excellent watch dog.” A smile was twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Good at his trade,” he repeated.
“Madrid,” Murdoch announced finally, eying his youngest over the brim of his coffee cup as he took a final sip of coffee. “I think I’ll name him Madrid.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open; the argument dying before he uttered a single word. Scott was trying hard to not to smile (and failing miserably); Teresa was biting her lip to keep from laughing, Maria was chuckling aloud, and Murdoch…
Murdoch was grinning like the cat that had just eaten the canary.
Johnny slouched back in his chair. He could hear it now. Every damned person on the ranch, whistling and calling out ‘Here, Madrid, here, Madrid’ and laughing so hard they couldn’t even make a decent pucker.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott was lounging on the couch, a tumbler of scotch in his right hand; his long legs stretched out before him. He flexed his toes, enjoying the heat from the fire that had been laid to ward off the night time cold that had arrived as soon as the sun had gone down. Spring in California was a fickle thing, he thought. There was still snow on the mountains, and when the wind blew in from the northwest, it carried the coldness across the valley. “So when are you going to tell him?” he asked, the rich baritone rumbling softly against the stillness. “About the dog?”
Murdoch was in his leather chair beside the fireplace. His feet were resting comfortably on the large ottoman and he was smiling. Johnny and Teresa had already gone on up to bed; and he had made a point of sending the mastiff up the stairs right behind them. “I don’t know,” he answered, chuckling. “I’m kind of enjoying the fact your brother is staying in his room now and I don’t have to worry about him sneaking off. If I tell him about the dog -- about what Aggie found out in Sacramento -- it will be like giving him a reprieve.” He saluted his son with his glass. “Let’s just enjoy the peace, son; for awhile, anyway.”
The blonde’s chin was resting on his chest. “You do know he’s up there,” he gestured towards the ceiling, “plotting.”
Murdoch laughed. “I don’t think he’s going to risk any more tears in his britches; not with the way Maria was scolding him about all the unnecessary mending.” He was quiet a moment. “Aggie said the advertisement in the Sacramento Bee listed an address for an attorney; some firm representing a British lord who is touring the west by train. The article said they noticed the dog was missing after they’d stopped to take on water.”
Scott took a sip of his whisky. “So we’ve been entertaining British royalty?” he teased.
“Only by default, son,” Murdoch answered. He was no fan of the British royal family. He swung his feet off the ottoman and stood up. “I’ll go to Green River in the morning, send a wire.” Going to the drink table, he picked up the decanter and poured a half measure; offering to do the same for his son.
Scott half turned, holding the tumbler steady as his father poured the whisky. “Are you going to miss him?” he asked. “The dog.”
Murdoch hesitated a moment before nodding his head. “Some,” he admitted. “However, the animal clearly has some issues with Johnny.” He took a deep drink, emptying his glass. His voice was whisky hoarse when he resumed speaking. “Your brother is stubborn. I’m not going to risk him getting seriously hurt trying to befriend some animal that isn’t going to be won over. It’s bad enough watching Johnny with a horse that would be better off put down, then to risk him attempting something foolish with this dog; just to prove a point.” Balancing the crystal tumbler against his palm, he turned it upside down and placed it on the silver tray. “I’m going up to bed now,” he said. “Don’t be long, son.”
Smiling, Scott nodded. “Goodnight, Murdoch,” he murmured.
He sat, staring into the fire, reflecting on the past months and the changes that had occurred in his life. There were times when it seemed he had spent his entire life at Lancer; that having a father, a brother and a foster sister was the most ordinary thing.
And then something as simple as a soft ‘don’t be long, son,’ would remind him that this was all new. All new, and so completely right.
His father, he realized, did not go to bed until he was sure all was well within his world; that his sons were finally home and sleeping safely under a common roof.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They hadn’t told Johnny about the advertisement in the Sacramento Bee, or the wire to the mastiff’s owner. Instead, Murdoch and Scott had enjoyed the relative tranquility that came with knowing Johnny wasn’t sneaking out of the house at night.
Not that the boy hadn’t tried, Scott mused.
“And we’re in Green River why?” Johnny asked, knuckling his brother’s arm and rousing the man from his reverie.
Scott swatted his brother’s hand away. “That, little brother, is for me to know, and you to find out,” he teased. They were standing on the railway platform; somewhat apart from Murdoch who was talking to the station master. The mastiff was, as usual, at Murdoch’s side.
In the distance, the lonesome wail of a steam-powered engine sounded. Johnny turned to stare at the empty western horizon and then -- suddenly -- jumped down into the track bed. Arms out, he hoisted himself up onto the eight-foot length of iron rail; balancing as he began walking the track. He could feel the vibration through the soles of his boots; the tingling coming and traveling up his legs to tickle deep in his groin. Laughing, he spun away as Scott reached down to grab his arm; standing sideways now and almost losing his balance as his brother lunged for him a second time. He jumped up into the air, turning completely around before landing back atop the cold steel.
“John!” Murdoch Lancer bellowed his son’s name.
It was enough to break the young man’s concentration. Arms flailing, he tumbled backwards. Long fingers grabbed at him again, closing tightly around his right wrist as Scott hauled him back up onto the platform.
Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s arm and took a swipe at his son’s posterior, his flat right hand smacking hard against the boy’s compact rear-end. “So help me, Johnny, I’m going to get a rope and tie you to that bench,” he threatened, nodding towards the station and the strips of wide planking that were attached to the building’s wall. “Don’t you hear that train coming?”
Johnny bucked away from his father’s grasp. “Jesus, Murdoch; we got another ten minutes before that train gets here!” He looked down, grimacing as the mastiff began nipping at his butt; the same place where Murdoch had just popped him. Vindictive, he took a swipe at the dog’s head.
SMACK! Once again, Murdoch’s broad hand connected with his son’s backside. “Quit pestering the dog!” he snapped.
“Dammit, Old Man! That hurts!!” Johnny protested, fanning his rear end. He was pouting now. His voice rose as the rumble of the approaching train grew louder; “And I wasn’t persterin’ the fu…damned dog.” A wicked gleam suddenly flickered in his blue eyes; the pout turning into a devilish half smile. That train was moving at a pretty good clip.
Murdoch didn’t miss the nefarious grin on his younger son’s face. He grabbed Johnny by the collar and pulled him away from the edge of the platform. “Don’t even think about it,” he cautioned. He had no idea what it was; but he knew that his son was planning something. Johnny had a reckless penchant for flirting with danger; a skewed sense of adventure that had, Murdoch was certain, given him more grey hairs than any blade of grass growing on the hundred thousand acres at Lancer.
There was a great hissing sound as twin bursts of steam signaled the slowing down of the great wood-burning locomotive that was approaching from the west. The three Lancers watched as the burly switchman hurried to lever the mechanism that would reroute the train from the main line onto the siding. More bursts of white steam billowed forth from the engine; another sound coming as the brakes were set, the screech of steel against steel coming as the train stuttered to a grinding halt. The familiar ka-tunk, ka-tunk followed as the cars butted up against each other and the engine heaved for a final time.
Johnny counted the cars; his brow furrowing as he realized what he was seeing was not the usual traffic that rolled with more frequency now through Green River and the neighboring countryside. There were only four cars behind the wood tender: a private Pullman “palace” car, a baggage car, a slatted stock car and a crew car.
Hopeful, Johnny elbowed his elder brother in the ribs. “Clay Porter?” he asked, thinking of Scott’s old friend.
Scott smiled. “No, Johnny. That…” he nodded in the direction of the palace car, “…would be Lord Spencer Carrington.” He shared a knowing look with his father, and continued. “The owner of one very large mastiff.” His gaze swung to the dog that was now standing at heel at Murdoch’s right leg. “That mastiff.”
There is a God! Johnny thought. The bigger surprise was that God had finally answered one of his prayers. “No shit!” he exclaimed. Just as quickly, his joy turned to anger. “And you didn’t tell me?” He took a less than playful swing at his brother’s head, cursing when Scott ducked.
“Stop it,” Scott admonished, laughing. He leaned in towards his sibling, whispering; his tone serious. “I still have that thousand dollars of listening money, and his lordship just might be willing to sell.”
Johnny stared up at his brother’s face. Scott’s expression was totally benign; guileless. “You buy that fuckin’ dog,” he breathed, “I’ll kick your ass.”
If Scott was impressed by the threat, it didn’t show.
“Boys.” Murdoch called out to his sons. It was his usual summons; one he expected to be obeyed.
“Come on, brother,” Scott urged. “We need to go talk to a man about a dog.”
Keep it up, Johnny thought, falling in behind. The temptation to carry through with the threat to kick his brother’s rear end was overwhelming, and it took everything he had not to yield to the temptation.
Johnny was still hanging back when they entered the private car. His eyes were busy, taking in not only the obvious opulence, but the subtle nuances of a more intricate nature. The palace car, he knew, did not belong to the Englishman. The man’s personal belongings were almost an intrusion into the functional design of the factory built carriage; where everything was bolted down and even a small change in the position of the furniture was impossible. It sure in hell was a step down from Clay Porter’s private car.
It was also decidedly less friendly; lacking in -- what did Scott call it? -- ambiance. The interior of the car was dark, almost gloomy; heavily stained mahogany paneling, velvet draperies and dark maroon upholstery. It made him feel closed in.
“Lord Carrington,” Murdoch greeted. He extended his hand.
The Englishman accepted the gesture; bowing slightly. At six-one, Carrington thought himself to be a tall man and prided himself on his fitness; but he felt dwarfed by the massive Scotsman. “Mr. Lancer.” He smiled. His gaze immediately dropped to the man’s right side, the smile broadening. “Nelson,” he breathed, going down on one knee, to pat the dog’s shoulder.
The mastiff extended its head, its nose twitching. The animal’s tail began to wag.
A small grin tugged at Murdoch Lancer’s mouth when he heard the dog’s name. “Admiral of the H.M.S. Victory at Trafalgar,” he said. “A fitting name.”
Carrington had pulled himself erect. “Yes,” he said; the pride evident. “A distant relative; my mother’s side.”
Murdoch turned his attention back to his boys. “My sons,” he said by way of introduction, “Scott and John.” He smiled. “Johnny is the one who found your dog.”
The Englishman’s gaze swung to the young men. He did a poor job of hiding his surprise; noting the obvious difference in not only their posture and build but their appearance. Carrington turned slightly, gesturing to the youth who was standing in the shadows in the far corner. “And my son,” he said, gesturing for the boy to step forward. “Evelyn.” He stressed the first ‘E’.
Unable to stop himself, Johnny snickered. The dog’s name was bad enough; but the name Evelyn for a boy? He smiled, surveying the youth. The kid was a smaller version of his old man; with the same rust red hair and too pale skin. He had Carrington’s green eyes, too; although they were devoid of expression, like marbles that reflected light but radiated no warmth.
There was something else, too. Johnny hadn’t missed the way the mastiff’s hair at its neck and along its spine had bristled when the Carrington boy stepped forward. The dog’s muzzle lifted ever so slightly, showing teeth.
The elder Carrington seemed to sense the dog’s discomfort. He cleared his throat. “My apologies, gentlemen,” he began. “It seems I’ve forgotten my manners.” Moving to the drink cabinet, he swung open the doors, displaying a collection of foil labeled bottles. “Drink?” he offered.
“Scotch,” Murdoch answered.
Johnny moved forward slightly. “Tequila?” he requested, knowing damned good and well that even if there was a bottle, his chances of having a drink was somewhere between nil and nada.
Carrington was taken aback, but recovered nicely. “Jose Quervo Especial,” he replied, hefting the bottle. Seeing Murdoch’s frown -- the firm shake of the man’s head -- he put the unopened bottle back on the rack.
“Scott?” Murdoch said, nodding towards the drink cabinet.
The blond smiled. “Scotch,” he said, shouldering his way past his brother and picking up a tumbler. He held out the glass as the Englishman poured the Glenlivet. “Lord Carrington,” he began.
“Nigel,” the older man interrupted.
Scott nodded and smiled. “I was curious as to how you happened to lose the dog. If you wouldn’t mind sharing?”
Carrington gestured towards the chairs. He cast a quick look at his son; who was now standing at a window, gazing out at the landscape. Taking a seat, he leaned forward slightly. “We stopped to take on water, east of Cripple Creek,” he said. “Nelson,” he clucked softly to the animal, taking obvious solace when the dog heeded his summons. “Evelyn,” he nodded towards his son, “took him for a run in the hills, and Nelson somehow slipped his collar.” He was quiet a moment. “The animal just…disappeared.”
Johnny was perched on the arm of Scott’s chair, but his eyes were on the younger Carrington. Even in profile, he hadn’t missed the boy’s smirk. Unconsciously, he made a fist and began rubbing his left thigh. “Disappeared, huh?” he asked. “Up near Cripple Creek?” His left leg began to dance.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said; a hint of censure in his voice, “sit still.”
Carrington smiled at the exchange between father and son. He called out to his own boy. “Evelyn. Perhaps you’d like to take our young guest outside.” He turned to face Murdoch. “We have horses in the stock car,” he said. “My hostler will be taking the animals out for exercise while we take on fuel and water,” he explained.
Murdoch considered the suggestion. Johnny, he knew, was getting restless. “My son is an excellent horseman,” he said. “Perhaps he can give your man a hand.” Then, turning to his son; “Not too far, Johnny.”
Scott began levering himself up from his chair. “I’d like to stretch my legs, too, sir,” he announced. He’d been fully aware of his brother’s tension; and the cause. Johnny did not like Evelyn Carrington, and -- Scott knew -- the feelings were mutual.
Johnny was already on his feet. “I don’t need no baby-sitter,” he muttered under his breath.
“I could ask to borrow the dog,” Scott whispered, teasing. He cupped his hand against the small of his brother’s back and gave him a small nudge. Young Carrington fell in behind them.
“Your sons are close?” Carrington asked, waiting to speak until the younger men had exited the car. He was lounging back in his chair; a bemused smile on his face as he watched Nelson making slow turns between his chair and the one Murdoch Lancer was sitting in.
Absently, Murdoch leaned forward, stroking the dog’s back when it finally lay down. “Sometimes, too close,” he answered drolly. Eyes narrowing, he surveyed the other man’s face. Carrington, he knew, had made inquiries in Sacramento regarding Lancer; and who it was that had claimed to have his dog; a prudent move considering the animal’s value. Murdoch had done his homework, too.
“As you’ve already learned, my sons have just recently come home to me,” he said. “My eldest, Scott, was raised in Boston by his maternal Grandfather; and Johnny…” he hesitated, carefully watching the other man’s face, “…Johnny was taken from Lancer by his mother when he was quite young. However, in spite of their very different upbringing, they seem to share some bond, some connection that draws them together.”
Carrington was staring into his glass. “Blood,” he said. “They share a common blood.” He was silent for a brief moment. “Is it the same for you, this bond?” he asked.
Murdoch sensed something wistful in the man’s voice; a melancholy longing. “They were told certain untruths about the circumstances that kept us separated. It hasn’t been easy, but they are coming to know me as a man; not some…” he smiled, sardonically, “…cold-hearted bastard who neglected them or cast them out.”
There was a sound as the Englishman inhaled. “I married young and foolishly,” he said, taking a long drink of whisky and finding comfort in its warmth; “an American woman from New York. We separated within a year, and the divorce was quite contentious.” His head lowered. “I didn’t know my wife was pregnant when she left England. Evelyn was born in this country. He is my only male heir, and he will inherit my titles when I die; and we’ve spent very little time together when he was growing up.”
His voice lowered. “I had hoped this trip -- this grand tour throughout your country -- would bring us closer, but it has not. If anything…” the words faded off into nothingness.
Murdoch helped himself to another scotch; leaning forward to top of the Englishman’s glass. “How old is your son?” he asked.
“Nineteen,” Carrington answered. “But he behaves more like a spoiled child; always threatening to run away, to run back to his mother, to the world she created for him.
“He attempted to wire her for expense money when we were in Sacramento.”
Murdoch contemplated the man’s words. In his usual blunt manner, he asked the question. “Have you ever considered, since he isn’t legally of age, just taking him to England? Putting some distance between the boy and his mother?”
Carrington’s head came up. “Are you suggesting I kidnap my son?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’m suggesting you take an opportunity to really get to know him; to allow him to get to know you on your own terms.” He smiled. “It’s no secret I offered my sons a considerable amount of money to come to Lancer;” the smile grew. “Johnny called it ‘listening money’. The thing is, it got them here, and it gave me an opportunity to show them what I had to offer.” He raised his hand, stalling the other man’s question. “And, yes, they are equal partners in the ranch now. But I call the tune.”
It was clear the Englishman was considering what he had just heard. “You make it sound so easy.”
The laughter came then; explosive almost, as Murdoch Lancer heard the word ‘easy’. “It’s been anything but easy, Nigel. But it has certainly been worth the effort.” He came forward in his chair, patting the mastiff’s head; running his hand the entire length of the dog’s body. “Sometimes, it’s actually been quite…amusing.” Wincing at the familiar pain in his right hip, he levered himself up from the chair; aware the mastiff did not rise to its feet. He realized, then, that he would really miss the animal and felt a pang of regret. Reaching down, he patted the dog’s head for what he knew would be the final time. “I’m content Nelson is where he belongs,” he said. He smiled. “And I have a ranch to run,” he finished.
Carrington was on his feet now, too. “There is still the matter of the reward,” he said. “You’ve returned a valuable piece of property…” he frowned, realizing how cold the words sounded, “…as well as a great friend.” He shoulders lifted in a great sigh. “I only wish Evelyn would take the opportunity to find out what it means to have the companionship of such a magnificent animal.”
Murdoch’s right eyebrow rose. “Nelson doesn’t get along with your boy?” he asked.
Carrington laughed. “I think it’s more that Evelyn hasn’t found a way to ‘get along’ with Nelson.” He shook his head. “Nelson seems…aloof...almost disapproving.” He smiled. “Nelson is an excellent watch dog. He alerted me and my man servant on more than one occasion when Evelyn was attempting to run off; or wandering too far from our caravan during our many stops.”
This time it was Murdoch’s turn to laugh. “Johnny,” he said. “Johnny’s very good with animals. Nelson, however, seems to be the exception.” A flicker of something beyond the windows caught the big man’s attention, and he crossed the car to take a better look; sweeping the heavy draperies aside. “Johnny,” he muttered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Kinda hard handed with that horse, ain’t you?” Johnny reached out, grabbing the youth’s arm.
Evelyn Carrington felt the iron grip of strong fingers around his right wrist; his arm stopped mid swing. “It’s no concern of yours how I handle my horse,” he snapped.
Johnny’s grip tightened. “It is if you use that fuckin’ quirt again,” he murmured.
The young nobleman’s lips parted in a contemptuous smile. “It’s not a quirt, it’s a gentleman’s riding crop!” His voice lowered. “I know who you are. What you are,” he announced. “My father had his people check out your…family.” He made the word sound dirty. “Boy gunfighter,” he mocked. “You don’t scare me, Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny was smiling, too. The cold smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “My Old Man checked your family, too.” He didn’t know if it was true or not, but it was clear from the kid’s face the bluff had worked. “There’s been a lot of phony Lords tryin’ to work their cons movin’ in where they ain’t wanted, stakin’ bogus claims for land they got no right to.”
Carrington was still trying to wrench his hand free. “You’re nothing but an ignorant cretin,” he ground out. “The English were here first. We’d only be taking back what ignorant peasants stole from the King!”
Johnny laughed. “Wrong, pendejo,” he said, applying even more pressure to the young man’s wrist; twisting harder now. “There’s a reason all of this,” he jerked his head towards the vast landscape, “used to be called New Spain.” Changing the subject, he flashed a full toothed grin, his voice whisper soft. “Your old man must really be stupid if he thought his dog disappeared up at Cripple Creek,” he said. “I been up there. Hell, Lancer owns property there. Lots of hills; lots of played out mines. Plenty of places to take a dog; tie it off somewhere, maybe leave him to die…” He was watching the kid’s face, his eyes; and knew he had guessed right. “Wonder what your old man would say if I told him his dog had rope burns on his neck when I found him.” God, he loved playing this game.
“Tell him,” the youth sneered. “Do you think my father would believe you?”
Johnny shrugged. “Got to be a reason that dog don’t like you,” he countered. “The way I got it figured, you didn’t treat that dog any better than you treat the horses. You’re pretty handy with that fuckin’ whip.”
Scott Lancer was mounted. He had been watching from a distance; and now moved up to where the two young men were standing. “Is there a problem here, brother?” he asked softly; keeping a tight rein on the spirited mare he had chosen from Carrington’s string of thoroughbreds.
Shaking his head, Johnny grinned up at his brother. “Nope.” He gave Carrington’s wrist a final twist before letting go. The young Englishman made the mistake of taking another swipe with the riding crop; a whoosh coming as the whip slashed across the bay gelding’s nose. “Now there’s a problem,” Johnny hissed.
The punch came with a snake-like quickness; Johnny’s fist slamming into Carrington’s nose and producing a spray of bright red blood. It was followed by a quick left uppercut that knocked the young Englishman off his feet.
Carrington’s response was quick; brutal. He struck out with the stiff riding crop, scoring a hit across Johnny’s cheek. Scrambling to his feet, he continued using the short whip.
Johnny bunched his shoulders, ignoring the blows as if he were swatting away a swarm of dragonflies. He knew the whip was looped around Carrington’s wrist, and he used that to his advantage. Reaching out, he grabbed the stick; pulling Carrington to him and using the momentum to land another blow to the youth’s jaw.
Scott dismounted and immediately waded into the fray. He had the advantage of height and long arm; his fingers closing around the collars of both young men’s shirts, physically pulling them apart. Behind him, he heard the thump-thump of running feet; heard his father calling out. It was a struggle, holding on to both youths; working in close quarters with the two other horses, his own mount careening away.
Even more of a distraction was the large mastiff, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. The dog was nipping indiscriminately at both young men until finally turning its attention to Evelyn Carrington. Scott kneed the mastiff in the shoulder; not hard, just enough to get the dog’s attention. “Down!” he ordered. The dog immediately obeyed.
Murdoch arrived to grab Johnny around the waist, pulling him away. Johnny was still intent on the fight; on pounding the red-headed boy into the dirt, at the same time struggling against his father’s grasp.
Scott pulled Carrington to his feet; roughly shoving him further away from his brother and father. “Enough,” he barked. He felt Johnny’s fist whisper by his right ear. “Damn it, Johnny,” he roared, turning around, “settle down!”
Johnny was still fighting to get away from his father, a useless task now as Murdoch had shifted position; his long arms tightly wrapped around Johnny’s upper torso. The big man physically lifted his son off the ground, holding him close as he whispered into the boy’s ear.
Knowing Murdoch was taking care of Johnny; Scott was concentrating on young Carrington. Taking a clean white handkerchief from his back pocket, he pressed it to the youth’s nose. “Put your head back,” he ordered, pressing the cloth against the young man’s face; pinching slightly at the bridge his nose.
Lord Carrington was standing next to his son; out of breath from the sprint across the rocky terrain. His cheeks were flushed, more in anger than from the physical exertion. “What’s going on,” he demanded. He shouldered his way in between Scott and his son; reaching out to take the handkerchief away from Evelyn’s nose. He visibly blanched, knowing at once the boy’s nose was broken.
Murdoch called out to his elder son. “Scott.” He was still holding on to Johnny, the fingers of his left hand firmly locked around the youth’s right elbow. He didn’t relax his grip until Scott joined him and took Johnny’s arm.
Approaching the Carringtons, Murdoch smiled slightly as the mastiff’s tail thumped against the dirt in greeting. “We have an excellent physician here in Green River,” he began. “Sam Jenkins. His office is just a short walk from here…”
Carrington’s back stiffened. “I would prefer my son be treated in the privacy of our car,” he interrupted. The idea of parading down a public street with his battered son in tow was repulsive to him. “I also want to speak with your local constable.”
Murdoch’s expression was grim. He wasn’t accustomed to being interrupted when he was speaking; and was even more offended by the suggestion a fist fight between two boys warranted the involvement of the local law. “I’ll send Scott for Sam,” he ground out. “As for Sheriff Crawford…” Knowing he was about to lose his temper, Murdoch hesitated. “I’ll have Scott fetch Val as well.”
Carrington didn’t miss Murdoch’s use of the lawman’s first name. He managed a curt nod. Then, aware his hostler had just returned with the three horses, he gestured towards the palace car.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Sam Jenkins stepped into the palace car, immediately aware of the tense quiet. Scott had provided him with a brief explanation of what had occurred, and then had excused himself saying he was going to look for Val. “Murdoch,” he greeted. “Johnny.”
Murdoch rose up from the upholstered club chair where he had been sitting. “Sam, this is Lord Nigel Carrington,” he nodded towards the Englishman, “and his son, Evelyn.”
Sam, whose late wife was the daughter of a Spanish Don, was painfully aware of the protocol; which he chose to ignore. He simply nodded, and then set about his task. Moving aside the clutter on the small table that sat between the small divan, he put down his bag. The red-headed youth was seated, head tilted back; a handkerchief still pressed against his nose. “Let me see if the bleeding has stopped,” he said.
There were nothing but dark clots staining the once-white linen. Gently, using his thumb and forefinger, Sam probed the wound. “There’s a fracture,” he said. “Fortunately, he’s young; the cartilage is still relatively flexible. A small plaster will stabilize the bridge…” he indicated the place with his forefinger, “…and, with time, it will heal.
“He will, however, have some bruising to deal with; some puffing and a pair of black eyes.” He resumed his examination, noting the young man’s sullen attitude.
“And the cut on his lip?” Carrington’s tone was clipped.
“Nothing of consequence,” Sam answered. “Again, he’s young. And like the very young, things will run its course.” He straightened, removing his glasses; using his own fresh handkerchief to polish the lenses. He turned to where Johnny was sitting. “Your turn,” he said; putting the glasses back on.
Johnny was hunkered back in his chair, his arms wrapped tightly around his upper torso. “I’m fine,” he muttered.
Sam exhaled. “Of course,” he sighed. “You’re always fine.” He reached out, his thumb coming to rest on the button of the boy’s chin. “And this?” he asked, using his fingers to probe at the welt on the young man’s cheek.
Johnny tried pulling away. “Nothin’,” he muttered. Unable to stop himself, he winced as Sam’s probing fingers explored the cut below his right eye.
“Do you suppose,” Sam muttered, “that just once, you could leave the diagnoses to the one who possesses the medical degree?” He turned to Carrington. “I’ll need a basin of warm water, some soap and some towels.” Reaching into his medical bag, he withdrew two small bottles; one of antiseptic, the other the familiar brown bottle of laudanum. It was pointless, he knew, offering the painkiller to the youngest Lancer. “I’ll leave this for your son,” he said, addressing the Englishman. “It will help with the headache he’s going to have.”
Carrington nodded. “And the bruising?”
“Cold compresses. In another week -- ten days at the most -- he’ll be none the worse for the experience,” Sam answered.
Carrington grimaced. In seven days he would be back in New York and facing his ex-wife.
The rear door to the coach opened, and Murdoch watched as Val Crawford and Scott stepped into the corridor; a smile coming when he saw the lawman’s right eyebrow arch.
If Val Crawford was impressed by the opulence of the palace car it didn’t show. His quick brown eyes swept the carriage, coming to rest finally on Johnny; a wry grin lifting the corners of his mouth. “Someone forget to tell you we aren’t fightin’ with the British no more, boy?” His gaze lifted to Murdoch’s face. “The kid decide he didn’t want to give up the dog?”
Johnny shifted in his seat. “I ain’t the one that’s got a problem with the dog,” he breathed.
Val studied the younger man for a brief moment. “So who started the fight?” he asked.
“My son does not engage in brawling,” Carrington answered. “And you are?” he asked.
Val pulled his vest away from his shirt, displaying the badge that was pinned just above his right shirt pocket. “The local constable,” he answered, remembering the brief conversation he’d had with Scott. “Val Crawford.” His eyes flicked to the red-headed youth that was sulking on the small divan beneath the draped windows. He reckoned the boy to be around the same age as Johnny, similar in build; but soft. “I asked who started the fight,” he repeated. When there was no response, he tried again. “Who threw the first punch?”
The red-head pulled himself more erect. “As my father said, I don’t engage in vulgar displays of fisticuffs.”
Johnny snorted. “No. You just enjoy beatin’ the hell out of animals.” He was smiling when he said the next, but there was no warmth in his eyes. “Or stakin’ dogs out someplace, leavin’ to die, and then lyin’ to your old man about how they got lost.” His right leg began to dance, and he came forward in the chair.
Murdoch reached out, his hand coming to rest on his son’s shoulder. “Johnny,” he cautioned.
Lord Carrington’s back tensed. “And just what are you implying?” he asked.
Johnny was watching the younger Carrington. Sam had just finished mopping up the boy’s face; and the kid’s eyes were already beginning to swell. “I ain’t implyin’ nothin’. Why don’t you ask that little prick…”
“John!” Murdoch’s fingers tightened on his son’s shoulder. “That’s enough!”
Johnny’s mouth shut, but not for long. “Tell him about the rope burns, Murdoch,” he murmured. “Ol’ Nelson didn’t tie that rope around his own neck.” He turned to look up at Val. “I hit ‘im first,” he confessed. “Right after he used that ridin’ stick on one of the horses.” And I’ll hit the little bastard again if I get the chance.
“Evelyn.” Lord Carrington addressed his son, the single word coming whisper soft. There was something more in his tone; a hint of denial shadowed by memories of things he had witnessed but had simply refused to belief. He had, he realized, attributed his son’s conduct around animals to a fear that had prompted aggressive behavior.
The youth’s response was belligerent. “You’d believe that…that cretin!” he fumed. “I’m your son,” he spat. He slumped back against the arm of the couch. “Mother was right. You think more of your damned animals, the dogs and the horses, than you do your own family.” He snorted in disgust. “And now you’d take the word of some…some
“…ignorant peasant?” Johnny finished, grinning. He looked up at his father. “That’s what he calls us,” he smirked.
Lord Carrington’s chin dipped against his chest; his eyes closed. When he looked up, he pointedly avoided looking at his son, choosing instead to address Murdoch Lancer. Still, there was something in his voice; his eyes. Hope, perhaps; or a father’s desire to believe his only son incapable of cruelty. “Please tell me about the rope burns.”
Murdoch was still standing behind Johnny’s chair; watching as Sam applied disinfectant to the cut below Johnny eye. “I thought perhaps someone had tethered the dog with a rope.” He nodded to where Nelson was laying curled up on the floor of the car, sleeping. “They’re completely healed now, and the hair has grown back.”
Carrington nodded his head. “It appears, sir, I owe you and your son an apology.” He looked across the room to where Val was standing. “And you as well, constable, for involving you in this…debacle.”
Val was leaning against the wall; his arms folded across his chest. He speared the Englishman with a particularly harsh glare. “Sheriff,” he corrected. “And it would appear,” he drawled, “it’s your boy who needs to be making the apologies.” He shoved himself away from the wall. A contemptuous snort from the younger Carrington prompted the next. “I’m done here,” he announced, the disgust evident. With that he put on his stetson and headed for the exit.
There was a snapping sound as Sam Jenkins closed his medical bag. “And I think I’ll join you, Val,” he called.
Carrington turned to face the physician. “Your bill, Doctor,” he said.
Sam took out a small notebook, scribbled something on the pad and handed it to the man. Carrington accepted the slip of paper; surprised by the small amount. The Englishman reached into his breast pocket and fished out a gold coin and pressed it into the man’s hand. “For services rendered, Doctor,” he said; “and your discretion.” Both British and American reporters had been relentless in their reporting on the “English Entourage”, Carrington’s private train and those of the other two British noblemen who had accompanied him on his grand tour of the American West.
Murdoch watched as Sam departed. “I think we can agree, Nigel, that it’s been a long day.” He extended his hand.
Carrington hesitated. “Evelyn,” he said. “Sheriff Crawford was right. You owe Mr. Lancer and his son an apology.”
The ensuing silence was all the prompting Johnny needed. He stood up, aware his father’s hand was still resting lightly on his shoulder. As always, his agile mind was working; overtime. The left hand side of his lower lip disappeared briefly as he played the words over in his mind, and he shared a quick smile with his brother; who rolled his eyes. “Lord Carrington,” he began. “Sorry I lost my temper and let things get out of hand,” he breathed, loud enough for the younger Carrington to hear. “I shoulda said somethin’ to my Old…to my father… first, let him handle things hombre a hombre… man to man…” he translated, “with you. Murdoch’s always gettin’ on me how I should remember to mind my manners and respect my elders.” He turned slightly to grin up at his father. “Sorry, Papí.” Then, turning back to the Englishman and smiling his best little boy grin, he thrust out his hand. “Sir.”
Carrington accepted the gesture instinctively.
Murdoch was having a hard time keeping a straight face. He knew exactly what his younger son had just done, and why. “We’ll be leaving now, Nigel. As I said earlier, I’ve a ranch to run, and Johnny…” he patted the boy’s shoulder, “…has chores waiting for him. Lots of chores.”
Carrington nodded. “You will be receiving a proper letter of apology from my son, Murdoch,” he promised.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“So, Old Man, you gonna hold your breath ‘til you get that letter from the Carrington kid?” Johnny asked. He was riding stirrup to stirrup beside his father; the pace leisurely, small puffs of yellow dust rising as their horses plodded down the street at the edge of town.
Murdoch chuckled. “No, I’m not going to hold my breath. But I do think I’ll be getting that letter. I have a very strong feeling that young man’s life is going to be taking a sudden turn towards the right path, Johnny; somewhere between here and where his mother lives in New York.” He swatted at a fly that was buzzing beside his left ear. “That was quite an apology you made, son. I’d be even more impressed if I could feel it was sincere, and not a mockery.” He was staring straight ahead.
Johnny was quiet for a time. “Aw, hell, Murdoch. I figured maybe if I made the kid look bad enough, his old man might do somethin’ about the way he was behavin’.” His chin dipped against his chest; his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat, but -- in spite of the cut lip -- there was a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He risked a tentative look at his father. “I was just guessin’ about what happened in Cripple Creek,” he confessed, “but I knew when I saw his eyes, I’d guessed right.
“And the horses. He started beatin’ on them horses, Murdoch; before we even got ‘em unloaded. Scott picked a black mare from the first stall and had her saddled up and down the ramp before me and Evelyn even got to the back of the car. He didn’t see what was goin’ on until the kid and me got into it out in the field.” There was a creaking sound as Johnny turned around in his saddle to look back towards the town. “And where is Scott?” he asked.
“He said he had some errands and not to wait,” Murdoch answered. He pulled his big gelding to a complete halt. “Johnny,” he said softly, reaching out to touch his son’s arm; “you don’t need your brother here to vindicate your actions.” He kneed his horse closer to his son, his fingers coming to rest on the welt on Johnny’s cheek. “It’s obvious from the mark on your face the Carrington boy is too handy with that whip, and -- by his father’s own admissions -- he did have the opportunity to get rid of the mastiff.” He smiled. “You are not in trouble for the fight,” he finished. “However, next time, I’d appreciate a bit of a warning before you indulge in a ‘vulgar display of fisticuffs’ with the son of a visiting British Lord.” His tone was light; teasing.
Johnny’s eyes were beginning to dance. He dipped his head, knowing full well his father had seen the mischief. “Scott read me somethin’ from that Boston paper Harlan’s always sendin’ him; said that the Prince of Wales could be headin’ in this direction.” He chuckled. “Just in case…”
Murdoch cuffed his son’s ear. “There will be no ‘just in case’,” he scolded, cupping the boy’s face against his palm. He turned slightly; the comforting creak of saddle leather coming as he shifted weight. “Your brother,” he said, nodding towards the horse and rider that were cantering in their direction.
“About time,” Johnny muttered. He waited until Scott’s horse came shoulder to shoulder with Barranca before he started the nagging. “What took you so long?” he groused.
“Just taking care of some business,” Scott answered. He leaned forward in the saddle, looking across to his father. “Sam said Lord Carrington’s compensation for his services more than covered Johnny’s bill,” he grinned. “In fact, he said Carrington was so generous, Johnny’s next two visits will be ‘on the house’.”
Johnny shot a dark look at his sibling. “We been waitin’ on you for almost an hour, brother. It take you that long for you and Sam to make jokes about my health?” he grumped.
Scott had taken off his stetson and was wiping the sweat band with his handkerchief. “Actually, what we were discussing was the odds on just how soon it would be before he sees you again, and if you would be sporting one,” he gestured with his fingers, “or two black eyes the next time.” He leaned in closer. “I bet on two,” he said, the fingers of his right hand making a “V”.
“That right?” Johnny snorted. He took off his hat and began swatting at his brother’s head.
“That’s enough,” Murdoch called out; “both of you stop it. Now.” He reached out, patting his gelding’s broad neck, soothing the animal. “Did you get all your business taken care of, son?” he asked.
Scott nodded his head but said nothing. Johnny, he knew, would find his silence aggravating.
“What business?” Johnny demanded.
The blond grinned. Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly. “At the bank,” he answered. He leaned forward, looking past his brother to his father. “Lord Carrington was telling me he was just recently offered $30,000 for Nelson,” he announced.
Murdoch’s face registered no surprise. “That’s not uncommon for a dog whose stud fee is in excess of $1,000,” he said.
Johnny’s lips pursed; a low whistle coming. “A thousand,” he breathed. “Hell, Murdoch, that’s twice what you get in fees for that Hereford seed bull.” He was shaking his head.
Scott nudged his father’s arm. “Well, that Hereford doesn’t produce eleven offspring from a single breeding,” he observed drolly. “That’s what Lord Carrington said the average has been the last three times he’s bred Nelson. Color and conformation have been consistent, too.” He sucked in a deep breath. “That would make Nelson a very good investment.”
Johnny pulled Barranca to a complete halt. He hesitated for a time before kicking the palomino into a trot and coming up beside his brother; so that Scott was to his left, between him and Murdoch. He was quiet for a time, chewing the storm strings on his stetson. “So what were you doin’ at the bank?” he asked finally, his tone conversational; almost pleasant. Scott, he knew, had just come into a substantial inheritance from his maternal grandmother’s family estate; some great-uncle who had died without -- what had Scott called it? -- issue.
Scott was staring straight ahead. “Making a withdrawal,” he answered. He leaned in towards his brother; “a rather substantial withdrawal.” Then, turning from his brother, he gazed across at his father. “I’ll need to make a trip to Green River again tomorrow, sir. Nothing major, just a small transaction I need to take care of in the morning before Lord Carrington leaves.”
Murdoch wasn’t sure what game it was his older son was playing, but if it kept Johnny from taking off across country on Barranca and jumping every fence between town and Lancer, it seemed like a prudent idea to play along. “I’m sure I can spare you for a few hours,” he said. “Johnny can pick the slack until you get back home.”
Johnny’s shoulders bunched, a prolonged sigh coming. “Like I ain’t already doin’ all the work,” he muttered.
“Do you have something you want to say, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“Like it would do me any good,” the youth mumbled under his breath. Aloud, he said. “No, sir.”
Scott reached out and patted his brother’s shoulder. “God loveth a cheerful giver,” he volunteered. He nudged Cheval’s sides, and the race was on.
Johnny looked up, readjusting his stetson to blot out the noon sun as he watched his brother’s horse canter beneath the arch. Scott had left immediately after breakfast. He’d been in a good mood, too; smiling at everyone and teasing with Teresa and Maria. The bastard, Johnny thought. Not one damned word about what he was going to be doing in town; or just what the hell that damned ‘transaction’ was he’d been yammerin’ about.
He jammed the pitchfork he’d been using into the pile of still steaming manure, debating his next move. Unconsciously, he rubbed at his belly with his right hand. His gut was still giving him a fit; had been giving him a fit ever since his big brother had told him he was considering buying Carrington’s damned dog. Hell, he’d been so tore up he hadn’t even had the energy to try sneaking out. The tension was worse than when the damned dog was standing guard outside his bedroom door.
Scott pulled up just short of the barn door. He swung his right leg over the saddle horn and slid to the ground; landing like a great cat. “Brother,” he greeted cheerfully. He led Cheval to the corral fence, looping the reins around the top most railing. Whistling, he began unlacing the latigo straps, loosening the cinch.
Johnny sauntered over to where his brother was standing. He reached down, pulling a long piece of straw from the bale of hay beside the fence, putting it in his mouth and lazily chewing on it before he shifted the thin sheave to the corner; as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “So, Boston, you get that little ‘transaction’ taken care of?”
Scott continued whistling until he finished his jaunty rendition of “Oh, Susannah”. He pulled the saddle free, hoisted it over his shoulder; and then grabbed the saddle blanket. “Yep,” he answered. Just the one word. He began walking towards the barn, grinning to himself when he felt his brother fall in behind. Johnny was right at his back; so close he could feel the younger man’s breath hot across his shoulders.
This time he began singing, softly; but loud enough his brother could hear.
“There was a farmer had a dog,
And Bingo was his name O;
B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O,
And Bingo was his name, O…”
Johnny was getting mad. He had been on pins and needles all night thinking about Carrington’s damned dog and the possibility his smart-assed brother might buy the beast; and that feeling had only intensified as his long morning crawled like the sun across the spring time heavens. Thing was, though, Scott knew he was getting pissed and he just kept on pushing.
Fuck! For two cents, he’d plug his brother. Hell, the mood he was in, he’d pop him for free. He sighed. But then he’d just have to explain it to the Old Man, and that wouldn’t fly.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny decided to try a different tact. Diplomacy, he figured. Scott was always goin’ on about how it was way better to use reason than his fists or his gun.
Nonchalantly, Johnny leaned against the twelve-by-twelve support timber that was at his back, his arms folded across his chest. He was still chewing on the piece of straw. “So when you gonna tell me just what it was you were doin’ in town, brother?” he asked amicably.
Scott had just finished smoothing the damp saddle blanket he had hung across the top railing of the first stall; standing back a bit as he evened the edges. “Now, Johnny,” he said, his tone as solicitous his brother’s, “how many times have you told me that every man has a right to keep a secret now and then?” Grinning, he turned to face his sibling.
Well, so much for fuckin’ diplomacy, Johnny fumed. Fist swinging, he catapulted forward, intent on beating the shit out of his wise-assed older brother.
Anticipating the blow, Scott feinted to his right, both arms coming up as he grabbed at his brother’s wrists. They wrestled for a time; like young Greeks positioning themselves in a contest for the laurel crown, neither of them giving an inch. Using the advantage of his long limbs, Scott used the toe of his right boot to hook his brother’s left ankle, and they tumbled onto the floor of the barn. “Patience,” Scott whispered into his brother’s ear. “You really must learn to be patient.” He was laughing now, enjoying the struggle.
The tussling continued as they rolled across the straw littered floor towards the barn door, the silence punctured by assorted grunts and groans as the sparring continued. So concentrated were they on their mock combat, neither young man was aware of the massive shadow that suddenly loomed across the sunlit threshold. There was a sudden oof as both young men tumbled against Murdoch Lancer’s wide spread legs; not one bit of give as the tall Scotsman stood as tall and rock solid as the fabled Colossus of Rhodes.
Fists knotted against his hips, Murdoch watched as both of his sons quickly righted themselves and bolted upright. “Well?” he demanded.
Scott was the first to speak. He was brushing himself off, his lower lip pursing as he puffed out a bit of air to blow the barn dust from his upper lip. “Just a little exercise before lunch, sir,” he grinned.
Johnny shot his brother a quick look, the grin coming. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he said, nodding. He reached out, flicking a piece of straw from his brother’s shoulder. “A little somethin’ to work up an appetite for those green chili tamales Maria was workin’ on.”
Murdoch’s lips twitched as he fought the smile. “Maria was making those tamales for Cip’s family,” he announced. Before Johnny had a chance to protest, he reached out, fingering the boy’s cheek. “And where is that bandage Sam put on that cut yesterday?” he asked.
Johnny pulled away from his father’s probing fingers. “Musta lost it when we were exercisin’,” he fibbed.
Scott turned to face his brother. Johnny, he knew, had removed the bandage immediately after leaving the house that morning; proclaiming that it was ‘a pain in the ass’ and it ‘itched like hell”. He decided not to tattle. “And if not tamales,” he began, “what will we be having?”
This time, Murdoch smiled. “Beef,” he said. Ignoring Johnny’s deep sigh, he looped an arm around Scott’s shoulder and together they headed for the house. “And how did things go in town, son?”
Johnny fell in behind the older men, staying close so he could hear Scott’s answer.
“Actually, sir,” Scott said, “things went quite well. In fact, I think a celebration might be in order. After all, we’ve made quite a major investment.”
Those words were all it took to spur Johnny into moving up even with his father and brother. “What kind of investment?” he asked, working hard to keep his tone neutral.
Murdoch opened the front door and stepped up into the entrance hall. He led the way to the Great Room and immediately went to the drink table. Pouring two equal measures of Glenlivet, he passed a glass to his elder son. “An investment in Lancer’s future,” Murdoch answered.
Johnny bit his tongue to keep the words he wanted to say from tumbling across his lips. It was a lost cause. “So if we’re celebratin’, there any chance you might break out that bottle of tequila again?”
Murdoch speared his younger son with the look. “Not in the foreseeable future,” he groused.
Johnny’s mind was working; hard. If I shoot the Old Man first, and then shoot Scott… He shook the thought away. His nimble fingers began dancing across the back of the couch. “So what the fu… hell is this investment?”
Like a dog worrying a bone, Scott thought. “I’m going to invest some capital from the trust into…”
Johnny shut his eyes. Please, not the damned dog; please, not the damned dog… he begged whatever gods that might be listening.
“…the grist mill,” Scott finished. “It will be a loan to Lancer,” he toasted his father, “at a very favorable rate of interest.” He looked up as his brother let out a long, quavering sigh. Smiling, he turned back to his father. “By the way, sir, I saw Lord Carrington when I was in town. He was very insistent about the reward that was offered for Nelson’s return. He made an extraordinary offer, and I just couldn’t refuse.”
Murdoch was studying his drink. “Scott, I don’t think it’s appropriate to accept a reward for doing the right thing. It was obvious the dog belonged to him, and it would have been wrong not to return Nelson to his rightful owner.”
The mention of a reward perked Johnny’s interest. He clasped his hands together in gleeful anticipation. “How much?” he asked, thinking about wrapping his fingers around some real cash. “How much am I gettin’?”
Scott beamed across at his brother. “Don’t you mean we?” he teased.
Johnny frowned. “Hey, I found ‘im.”
The blond nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “On Lancer land.” He shared a look with his father before swinging his gaze back to his brother. “So the proper question would be, what is your one-third.”
Smart ass, Johnny mused. But one third of somethin’ was still one third of somethin’. “Okay. How much?” he repeated.
Scott’s brow furrowed as he considered his brother’s question. “Well, I was thinking Murdoch should get the front third, I’d take the middle, and you could have the remaining end,” he answered.
Johnny’s fingers had been drumming atop the drink table, one-two-three-four. This time the thumps stopped at three. “End of…what,” he asked.
Scott’s lips were twitching. “Murdoch gets the brains, I get the belly, and you, little brother…” he took a breath, “get the butt.” He hesitated. “Or in other terms, Murdoch gets to train it, I get to feed it, and you get to clean up the mess.”
It was Murdoch who requested clarification. “What exactly are you talking about, son?”
Scott finished the last of his scotch. “Lord Carrington’s prize bitch -- the one he’s kenneled at his partner’s estate in San Francisco -- has just given birth to nine pups sired by Nelson.” He bit his bottom lip to stop the smile. “He’s offered us choice of the litter, Murdoch; as soon as they’re weaned.” A stunned silence followed his announcement.
Johnny grimaced, a barely audible moan escaping from between his clenched teeth. A string of muttered curses cut into the quiet as he exhausted his vast supply of Mexican swear words.
“John,” Murdoch chided in that tone of voice that held even more promise than threat; never a good thing. Then, smiling, he turned to his elder son and clapped him on the back. “A male,” he beamed. “I’ll make the trip to San Francisco myself to choose the one.” Arm around Scott’s shoulder, he gently guided his son towards the dining room; knowing Johnny would fall in behind. The next was for his younger son’s benefit. “There’s only one real way to select the pick of the litter,” he said, his voice lowering as he dispensed some paternal wisdom. “You separate the bitch from the litter -- before they are weaned -- and then let the mother back in to gather up the puppies. She’ll pick the strongest pup first, every time.”
Johnny trudged along behind his father and brother. He didn’t know what pissed him off the most: Scott’s acceptance of Lord Carrington’s offer; or Murdoch’s joy over the prospect. And Murdoch…
Enthusiastically, Murdoch Lancer
continued to speak. “Why, in six months, Scott, we’ll have that pup turned
into the finest watch dog in the entire San Joaquin valley!”