A “WSHH”: A “What Should Have Happened”
Disclaimer: I don’t need no f***in’ disclaimer…
And a special “thanks” to SF for allowing me to borrow her original play on words re “Lancerlot”…
“Would you care to explain what just happened?”
Johnny Lancer continued to study the toe of his right boot. He shrugged, blowing out a puff of air as he considered an answer. Not that his Old Man was going to like the one that was clawing against his teeth trying to get out.
“John.” Murdoch Lancer was leaning in now, his nose almost touching the dark curls that covered his younger son’s head; and he was whispering. Well, what passed for whispering.
Shit! The youth was still working the thing over in his head; the way Lady Luck messed with his mind and his life when he least expected it. Murdoch whispering was a hell of a lot more unnerving than the usual bellowing. Shouting he could deal with; hell, he could just holler right back, but this… “C’mon, Murdoch.” He risked a look at his father and just as quickly averted his eyes; unable to hide the smile. “It’s not like I called the son-of-a-bitch out…”
Murdoch’s posture suddenly changed as he pulled himself erect. It didn’t help his mood one bit that his elder son, Scott, who was leaning against the surrey, was grinning like a jackass. “Would you care to explain just what you find so amusing, Scott?” he ground out.
Scott shrugged his shoulders. He raised his right hand in the universally accepted sign of peace, hoping to ward off the impending tirade. “Well, sir, if you recall, I am the one who suggested we at least get Johnny house-trained before we allow him outside without a leash and muzzle…”
That wasn’t exactly what Scott had said when they were all getting suited up for the trip into town, but it was close enough. Johnny made the mistake of laughing. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he cajoled in a feeble attempt to make the entire fiasco his father’s fault, “told you I didn’t want to come.”
The flesh beneath Murdoch’s right eye had begun to twitch; never a good sign. Johnny’s argument against making the trip to church had begun before he was even out of bed and was in full whine mode at breakfast. To make matters worse, his relentless complaining continued during the long ride into town; finally necessitating a sudden halt and a harsh and immediate demand for a serious attitude adjustment.
And it had worked, Murdoch mused, at least until something possessed the boy to change from impatient observer to village idiot. Reaching out, he laid a firm hand on his son’s left shoulder. “The issue here is not what you wanted to do, John, but what you were expected to do. And that was certainly not to stand up in the middle of the service…”
Johnny could feel the tingle all the way down to his funny bone; the pain making him cranky as well as a tad foolish. “Hey. Not my fault the preacher asked if there was anyone who objected,” he grouched. “Sure in hell didn’t hear you pipin’ up…”
Murdoch’s grip increased; what little reserve of paternal patience he had completely evaporating. “This is how it’s going to be, John. First, you are going to apologize to Aggie.” When his boy attempted to buck free, he pulled him up short. “And then, son, you are going to apologize to Buck Addison.” His eyes narrowed until they were mere slits. “In front of the entire congregation.”
Johnny’s response was instantaneous and straight to the point. “Ain’t no fuckin’ way!” he snapped; his expression incredulous.
The smile on Murdoch Lancer’s face was totally devoid of any humor. “I suggest you find a ‘fuckin’ way’,” he ordered.
There was an audible whoosh as both Lancer sons suddenly inhaled, blue eyes going wide at the shock of hearing their father voice the obscenity. The brothers exchanged a long look, neither one of them able to speak. The brief reverie was shattered by their father’s sudden bellow.
“Boys!” Murdoch had turned and was already striding towards the church.
Usually it was Scott who tended to snap to, to immediately react to the clear tone of command in his father’s voice; but not this time. Johnny Madrid Lancer, famed and much-feared pistolero, suddenly found himself compelled to respond to his father’s summons. As if they had a mind of their own, his feet propelled him forward; and not in the usual, slow saunter that pissed off friend and foe alike.
Snake-like, Murdoch’s right hand shot out as Johnny came up behind him, and he grabbed his wayward son by the scruff of his neck. Without breaking stride, the tall Scot herded his younger son towards the open door of the reception hall, a wry smile coming as Scott caught up to take his place at his brother’s side. Together, the three Lancers mounted the wide stairway, and joined the festivities.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The dancers stopped, as did the musicians; as if some secret, prearranged signal had been given that stopped them mid beat. One by one, the crowd turned to face Murdoch Lancer and his sons.
Johnny was standing wedged between his father and older brother. There were times when he actually enjoyed being the center of attention; hell, were circumstances when he had invited the scrutiny. But not this time. Head down, Stetson clutched in both hands and his fingers busy as he worked the brim in a slow circle; he risked a sidewise glance at his brother, relieved to see the genuine look of simpatico gracing the blond’s features.
And Scott did feel sympathy for his brother. Although there were occasions when he found his little brother exasperating and even annoying, the majority of the time they had spent together since meeting had been extraordinary, one adventure after another. But this time, Johnny had gone too far; without any forethought regarding the consequences of his impetuous behavior. Scott sighed. In another time, another place -- and if the bride had not been Aggie Conway -- Smiling, he leaned in, he mouth close to his sibling’s ear. “Time to let ‘er buck, brother.”
The hint of a smile tugged at the corners of the younger man’s mouth. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, brother,” he murmured. Then, looking up to his father, he turned on the charm. “Hey, Pa,” he began. His head dipped momentarily against his chest as he moistened his lips, his tongue lingering at the right hand corner of his mouth. “I know I got to make it right with Aggie, but…” he hesitated for a heartbeat, “…can we take it outside? Just me and her?”
Murdoch was already shaking his head when he answered his son, taking great care to keep the words private. “No, we cannot. You chose to pull your little stunt in front of the entire town; you’ll make your apology the same way.” His voice rose slightly. “Aggie,” he resumed, nodding to the woman. The corners of his mouth quirked up briefly as he saw the woman’s bemused smile, not one mote of anger in her expression; and he reminded himself, once again, what a remarkable creature she was.
His smile disappeared when he turned his attention to the man standing at Aggie Conway’s side. “Buck,” he greeted, keeping his tone neutral. He slipped his arm around Johnny’s shoulder; momentarily regretting what he was about to do, but knowing -- for propriety’s sense -- it was necessary. “My son has something he wants to say to you and Aggie,” he announced. His right hand was cupping Johnny’s shoulder, and he gave the boy a quick squeeze. “John,” he prompted, his tone firm.
Johnny’s eyes closed briefly. He was sure and certain he had finally cashed in his chips; that this place he was now occupying was not the church’s recently constructed reception hall that still smelled of newly milled lumber and fresh paint. No. He was dead, and this was Hell, and the devil -- Buck Addison -- was in charge and about to take his due.
Taking a deep breath, Johnny focused his gaze on Aggie Conway’s face; her eyes. The fact Sam Jenkins was now standing just to the left and slightly behind the woman also eased the ache that was now clawing at the pit of his belly. “I was out of line,” he started, the words coming in a soft drawl. “The Old Man,” he coughed, catching himself, “Murdoch was right in draggin’ my a.. behind out of the church before I made a bigger fool out of myself. I’m sorry.”
The smirk on Buck Addison’s face broadened into an ear to ear grin. It was clear he was gloating; basking in the knowledge that Johnny Madrid -- the same hot head that had, not that long ago threatened to bash in his face -- was now eating crow. True, he and Murdoch had come to an uneasy accord for Aggie’s sake, but this… Raising his glass, he saluted first the Lancer patriarch, and then the youth. “Apology accepted, John. Of course,” another tip of his goblet towards Murdoch, “if you were mine, I’d take you out behind the barn and teach you some proper manners.”
Frowning, Aggie reached out a hand to her new husband. “Buck…”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed as he kept his temper in check. “Aggie,” his tone was soft when he addressed the woman, but purposely not quite as civil as he addressed Addison, “Buck. We’ll leave you to your celebration.” With that, he cupped his right hand in the small of younger son’s back, and gently turned him towards the door.
Scott was right by Johnny’s side as they exited the room; the hushed chatter of the guests prompting a smile. “That was a very eloquent apology, little brother,” he murmured. “Just the right amount of ‘I’m sorry’ for Aggie, and not one damned bit of regret for what you said in church about Addison. And the pompous ass didn’t even realize you neglected to throw him as much as a crumb.”
Unable any longer to hold it in, Johnny laughed. “So who’s buyin’ the first beer?”
Murdoch couldn’t believe what he was hearing; the continued cheekiness of his thoroughly unrepentant son. “There will be no buying of beer,” he groused. He nodded towards the surrey. “Scott, I want you to go back inside and fetch Teresa. We’ve had as much of a ‘celebration’ as we’re going to have today; and we’re going home.”
Shit! Johnny thought, recognizing his father’s tone. He had the sinking feeling that this little fandango was not over, and he was going to seriously regret having ever been born.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Bone tired and weary, Johnny Lancer pulled up in front of the main stock barn. Aching from head to toe, he dropped down from the saddle; wincing a bit as his feet hit the ground. Gratefully, he handed Barranca’s reins off to Frank.
“Lookin’ kind of beat, Johnny,” the cowboy observed. Like the other ranch hands, Frank was aware of Johnny’s current job assignment: extra chores at Aggie Conway’s Circle C as penance for his wayward conduct at the woman’s wedding.
Johnny’s cheeks colored and he nodded his head. “Only another week ‘til the honeymooners get back,” he grinned. “Kinda stuck ‘til then; unless lightnin’ hits or…” Stopping mid sentence, his gaze swung towards the front of the hacienda. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked, nodding towards the surrey that was parked at the front door. Hell. How had he missed that?
Frank had begun unlacing Barranca’s saddle. “Mr. Lancer is taking a trip,” he answered, shrugging. “Cord Bishop came out an hour ago with a wire from Western Union,” his gaze shifted to the front of the main house just as Scott came through the door carrying a piece of luggage, “and everything’s been crazy since…”
Curiosity piqued, Johnny gave Barranca’s rump a final pat and took off, “Hey, Scott?” he called.
Scott was stowing the small steamer trunk in the buggy’s boot. “Hey, yourself,” he greeted, the smile coming. “You’re cutting it a bit close, aren’t you?” He nodded towards the western horizon and the setting sun. Tying the final knot, he patted the case with the flat of his hand and turned back towards the house.
“So what’s goin’ on?” Johnny followed behind like a tired puppy; reaching out to muss his brother’s hair.
“I’m leaving for a few days,” Murdoch answered, striding across the covered patio. He was wearing his best suit and his brand new, white Stetson. “Your brother is in charge. I don’t want any slacking off; here or at Aggie’s. Understood?” Not waiting for an answer, he stuffed his carpet bag beneath the front seat. “I’ll send a wire letting you know when I’ll be back.”
There was a subtle creaking sound as Murdoch climbed up into the buggy and the springs gave beneath his bulk. Without another word, he clucked to the team and urged the horses forward.
Johnny watched as the matched bays picked up their pace and moved briskly towards the arch. “He ain’t goin’ to Sacramento, is he?” he asked, annoyed by his father’s complete dismissal and the man’s hurried departure. Your brother is in charge, my ass!
Scott looped a friendly arm across his brother’s shoulders and pulled him towards the front door. “No,” he said, as they stepped across the threshold. He guided his sibling towards the hallway and down the stairs into the Great Room. “I have a story to tell you, Johnny,” he announced, still tugging his brother along. “Once upon a time, there was this great knight,” he continued, waving to some mythical kingdom beyond the arched window and the disappearing buggy. “His name was Sir Lancerlot,” he smiled, pleased with his clever play on words, “and he was embarking on this great quest to save his lady, the fair Guinevere…”
Johnny knew this story. Scott had bored him into a near coma during his recuperation with all the talk of King Arthur, his cheating Queen, and her lover, Lancelot. “And that has what the Hell to do with our Old Man takin’ off like a bat out of Hell?” he grouched.
Scott had finally turned loose of his younger brother, and was now comfortably seated on ‘the throne’ behind their father’s desk. He had even poured himself a full measure of Glenlivet.
At this point, Johnny wouldn’t have been one bit surprised if his pain-in-the-ass brother had pulled out the Old Man’s pipe and tobacco and built a smoke. Scott was also obviously very pleased about something; something he seemed almost reluctant to share. “Just what the fuck’s goin’ on, brother?” he demanded. “And don’t give me no more of that bullshit about ‘Sir Lancerlot’ and his ‘fair Guinevere’, either.”
Scott came forward in the chair, both hands wrapped around his glass. “Aggie Conway has filed for an annulment of her marriage to Buck Addison,” he announced gleefully. “Seems Acme Land Company claimed its holdings had just been increased by the acquisition of a very choice parcel of ranch land here in the San Joaquin, and they were trying to obtain a very large loan against the new holdings. It seems Buck assumed Aggie would deed the Circle C over to him after they were married, and the lady was not so inclined.” He knocked back a healthy swig of the whiskey. “She sent for Murdoch to be a witness at the hearing.”
Johnny let out a slow whistle, the wide smile creasing the skin behind his ears. “No kiddin’,” he breathed, genuinely impressed. “I bet old Addison is shittin’ bricks!” Ignoring his brother’s frown, he reached across the desk and helped himself to Scott’s glass.
Ever the optimist, Scott saved the best for last. “That’s right, little brother,” he grinned. “We play our cards right, and Murdoch does his part, we may get a stepmother out of this yet!”
There was a serious bout of coughing as Johnny choked on the scotch. Stepmother, he panicked. Hell, he’d just now gotten used to the idea of an Old Man, a sister and a wise assed brother. That was all he needed in his already too full life; one more person to be tellin’ him what to do, and when!
He needed a plan. And he needed it now.