Disclaimer: I don’t own them <sob> and no profit is being made from this yarn.
Rated G, absolutely no warnings needed.
A light, fluffy short story to go with one of those weird March holidays that EarthDogue told us of. You Americans are strange!
SAFE AS HOUSES
“You can’t talk me out of it, so there’s no point in tryin’. I ain’t stayin’ here another day with things like this. It’s not safe for any of us.”
The voice was a fine blend of annoyance and frustration, with perhaps the prize going to frustration. Johnny Lancer strode meaningfully towards the hat tree and retrieved his gun belt, wrapping it snugly around lean hips, taking infinite time to nestle the holster into position along the outer curve of his right thigh. He leaned down and fastened the leather thong around his thigh closer to his knee and when he was satisfied with position and comfort, he grabbed his hat and plonked it onto his head, careful of the tender spot on the back of his skull.
As he made his way towards the heavily studded wooden door that marked the perimeter of their domain, he turned one last time and regarded his father’s stern visage.
“I mean it, old man. I’ll do my work like always, but until this thing’s settled, I won’t be eatin’ or sleepin’ here. Somebody’s gonna come a real cropper, an’ it ain’t gonna be me. I’ll either bunk down with the vaqueros, or Jelly.” He suddenly recalled Jelly already had a room mate in the annoyingly noisy form of Dewdrop the goose. “On second thoughts, I’ll maybe head up to the north line shack for a few nights, but I ain’t stayin’ here!”
With that he stormed out, leaving his father with his mouth open in a most ungainly fashion. His exit would have been all the more impressive had it not been for his heavy limp.
Murdoch closed his jaw with a snap and turned to look into the empty hearth. How symbolic that the fire had gone out; it had just gone out of his life, too.
It had taken twenty years for him to get his two sons home where they belonged and at first things had been very delicate but lately they’d all been getting along so well. His mind wandered back to the first time all three Lancers had been in the same room…
His elder son Scott was from a military background, well used to giving and receiving orders. But that hadn’t necessarily meant that they didn’t butt heads too. Their first exchanged words weren’t exactly an auspicious start.
“You’ve got your mother’s eyes.” What a thing to say to a young man who never had the chance to know his beautiful mother, but he did have Catherine’s blue-grey eyes. He should have gone on to speak dearly of her, but he hadn’t. Instead, he’d moved on to his other son and ruffled both their feathers. When he’d offered them a drink things had taken a downward turn. At first Scott had politely declined the drink only to decide minutes later that he would have it after all.
Murdoch recalled his angry words: “You’ll do as you’re told!”
And Scott’s reply: “Will I?” so full of pent-up frustration, and probably wanting to yell at this stranger who claimed to be his father: “Where have you been for the last 25 years when I needed a father, not a grandfather? Where were you when I was stuck in that hell-hole of a prison camp? I could have been so comforted knowing that my father was thinking of me, maybe even moving Heaven and earth to get me released, but at least he’d be there when I got home. But oh no…the great Murdoch Lancer didn’t want any part of his son’s life; the son who’d stolen his precious wife’s life by daring to be born!”
And what of his younger boy, Johnny? Now there was a fiery one, so like Maria, all Latin temperament and flashing eyes. Those eyes were something else. How many Anglo-Mexicans ended up with eyes the colour of precious sapphires? Murdoch shook his head as he thought over his son’s childhood. Those eyes, beautiful and expressive as they were, would have got little Johnny into so much trouble, unaccepted by the Mexicans as a mestizo and unaccepted by the Anglos as a Mexican; a child lost to both worlds. It was little wonder that the child had learned to defend himself at an early age. He was under attack from all sides.
Murdoch had spent money and years trying to find his missing second wife and child after she had run away, but the border towns weren’t receptive to Anglos and he’d had to admit defeat and return home.
Home! How could he think of it as a home? A home was where families lived and loved, and grew up. His sons had been scattered like the winds, east and west, or who knows where in Johnny’s case.
It had been of some help to have Angel and Paul O’Brien living on the land, and eventually little Teresa had arrived. She was a whirlwind of energy right from the start, and fearless, too. She’d follow Paul and Murdoch around, getting into everything and always ending up mucked to the eyes. If Murdoch closed his eyes he could still see Angel standing with a hand on each hip and a stern look on her face as two grown men shame-facedly returned a definitely shop-soiled child to her care after another eventful day.
Angel hadn’t always been the flighty woman she was now. She’d done her best to make Paul happy, and for a good few years she’d been an excellent mother. It had often made Murdoch wonder what sort of mother Maria was being to his little dark-haired, blue-eyed cherub. Sometimes to look at Angel and Teresa laughing and tickling, or chasing the chickens had almost reduced this giant of a man to tears.
But his sons had come home. Sadly Paul hadn’t been around to see what Murdoch had longed for all those years, having been murdered less than a year before. And Angel had long since taken off to make her fame and fortune, without her daughter! Perhaps the loss of her mother’s influence had turned Teresa into the little tornado she was today.
Footsteps behind him made him look up from the empty grate.
“Was that Johnny?” Scott enquired.
Murdoch sighed heavily and nodded, picking his way carefully to the drinks cabinet and pouring two healthy measures. He handed one to his elder boy before looking around at the disorganised room and choosing a seat.
“He won’t be talked out of it, Scott. Not this time. He’s gone, and that’s all there is to it.”
Scott looked askance at his father. “And you mean to tell me that you’re surprised? That was a very nasty fall Johnny took. He could have been more seriously hurt. Any one of us could. I have to agree with him on this occasion, sir. It really is too dangerous around here, just now.”
“I know, Scott, but there are some things that can’t be avoided, and this is one of them. Teresa’s already so mad she’s throwing things into the rear courtyard. Only yesterday she took a carpet-beater to that rug in Johnny’s room. I swear there’s no pattern left on it. But the fall was partially Johnny’s fault. If he had come into the house at the speed any normal person might enter, he’d have noticed that the floor had been waxed. But oh no, not my son. Why walk when you can run? He was the same as a toddler, always tearing away from his mother and me…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off as he was lost once more in the past.
Scott drained his glass and crossed to the decanter. Pouring his father another measure he tapped the man on the shoulder.
“All the same, sir, his ankle is badly swollen and he took quite a bang to the head. If Sam knew he was even on his feet, there’d be hell to pay. You should have made him stay.”
Murdoch snorted at the bald words. “Since when have I been able to make him do anything he doesn’t want to? You know your brother better than most of us. Could you have talked him out of going?” At Scott’s slow shake of the head, Murdoch continued. “He said he might head up to the north line shack for a few days. Let’s give him some space and when he’s calmed down, hopefully he’ll come home again.”
Scott set his empty glass down and carefully crossed to the hat tree where he retrieved his own gun belt and hat.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch, but I’m not prepared to leave it like that. Johnny shouldn’t be out there on his own with concussion, no matter how dangerous it is around here. If he intends to stay at the line shack until things have settled, then that’s where I’ll be, too.”
With a civil nod, Scott pulled open the front door, mindful of the housekeeper, Maria, polishing the heavy knocker outside. He doffed his hat at her as she tutted and muttered in Spanish over the constant interruptions to her work, and set off to saddle Charlie.
Jellifer B Hoskins stepped out from his quarters as Scott strode by.
“Howdy, Scott. Ya goin’ after Johnny?” He kept pace with Scott in spite of the younger man’s longer limbs.
“Yes I am, Jelly. Murdoch should have had more sense that to let him ride out of here.”
“You think ya can get him to come home?” Jelly’s tone was worried.
“I’ll do my level best, Jelly. Johnny just needs some time to calm down. I think we’ll spend a couple of nights at the shack and then he’ll be ready to come home. Three days without Maria’s cooking will start to talk some sense into him. Although I’m in full agreement with him over this. You should count yourself fortunate that you’re out here. It’s like a battle zone in there.” Scott nodded back towards the estancia.
Jelly sighed as Scott continued on towards the barn. He stood his ground as Dewdrop squawked around his feet, and a few minutes later Scott rode out in the direction his younger brother had gone.
“Come on, Dewdrop. Let’s you an’ me stay well away from the big house. We don’t want any more accidents, do we?”
Johnny dismounted painfully at the shack, thankful that he’d made it in one piece. His head pounded from yesterday’s fall on the hard floor, and his ankle refused to allow him to wear his comfortable boots. He could only get the right boot on, and had to wear several pairs of socks on his left foot in compensation.
He tethered Barranca, his beautiful Palomino stallion, to the hitching rail and dragged the saddle bags inside. He knew he should see to his horse before himself, but he just needed to sit down for a few moments, and close his eyes. Maybe that would take away the chain gang working overtime in his head.
Sitting at the rough-hewn table, he unpacked his saddle bags and looked with distaste at the meagre rations. Teresa had refused to pack any fresh food for him, angry with him for insisting on leaving, and he’d grabbed a few tins of beans from the larder under her baleful glare.
“It’s not going to last for ever, Johnny,” she’d tried to reason with him.
“It’s already been way too long as it is, Teresa. Yesterday was the final straw. Now either it stops now, or I’m leavin’.”
She’d simply stomped her foot and scowled at him, hurling some insult about men and not understanding how things had to be.
So now he was here, spending a few nights away from his newly acquired family in less than salubrious surroundings. But at least he felt safe.
Scott rode up about 30 minutes after Johnny and was surprised, but relieved, to see Barranca tethered but not settled after the ride. He led both horses to the small lean-to that doubled as a barn and unsaddled them. He gave them a quick rub down and some oats and water, then turned to the shack. He knew better than to walk in unannounced on his brother with the itchy trigger finger, so he coughed discreetly and knocked the door, waiting for a response.
When he failed to get one, he quietly pushed the door open and stepped inside. Johnny hadn’t got around to lighting the lantern on the table so Scott scraped a match on his heel and lit a candle as he stepped up to his brother’s sleeping form, slouched over at the table.
With a feather-light touch, Scott tapped his brother on the shoulder whilst at the same time reaching down to restrain the movement he knew would be next. Johnny woke with a start and his right hand snaked reflexively towards his hip for the ever-present Colt, only to meet his brother’s hand already there, staying the drawing of the gun.
“Just goes to show that your timing is definitely off after that bang on the head. I could have been anyone and you could be dead.” Scott scowled at his brother’s dazed expression.
Johnny shook his head to clear the sleep from his brain, an action he instantly regretted.
“I’m fine, Scott, quit fussin’. So I didn’t hear ya comin’ in. You’re gettin’ more an’ more sneaky every day. Old Harlan wouldn’t recognise Lt Lancer now.” He looked around, seemingly expecting someone else to be there. “The old man send ya?”
“Not exactly, although he does know I’m here. Johnny, you should be at home, safely tucked into bed, being spoiled rotten by Maria, not out here falling asleep without caring for your horse. Come on, let’s go home, please.”
“Can’t do it, Boston, not while that’s still goin’ on. Not sure if I can face it.”
Scott shook his head sadly. “So the great Johnny Madrid has finally met his match, huh?”
Johnny grinned suddenly, making him seem impossibly young and impudent.
“Well I’ll tell ya, brother, I’d rather face off against Wes Harding and Doc Holliday put side by side than go back there. Is this sort of thing gonna be a regular occurrence, ‘cause if it is, I may have to make it my policy to take off for the week each time it comes around.”
“As far as I can see, it’s an annual thing. Something called ‘National cleaning week’. All we need to know is that for the week, Maria and Teresa will become even more irrational and emotional and move everything about, and wash everything that stands still. If you can avoid running over newly waxed floors, or tripping over rolled-up carpets, we’ll be home and dry. But the main thing is we’ll be home.”
Johnny looked at his interlaced fingers and suddenly yawned hugely.
“Home…sounds good to me, Boston, but maybe tomorrow. I’m whacked. You shouldn’t have let me come out here in my condition. Have you been skippin’ chapters in that Big brother handbook?”
Scott’s retort died on his lips as once again Johnny’s eyes started to close. He grabbed his drowsy brother under the arms and hauled him to the first cot, dropping him gently onto it and making no attempt to remove his boot. Looking down on this enigma of a man with a heart that was full, Scott Lancer considered himself well blessed. Now if he could just figure out some way for them to both avoid National cleaning week each time it was due, life couldn’t get much sweeter.