(A short story for Winj’s April Fool’s Challenge)
Thanks to KC and Janet for their betas. I have since tweaked…so all mistakes are my own.
All feedback is welcome.
As Johnny passed beneath the Lancer arch he wondered if his brother had one of his special highfaluting words to describe just how tired he was. Dead didn’t come near to describe how exhausted he felt.
Clearing the stream of dead wood and every animal carcass known to man was a back breaking job when two men worked together, but when he had to send Skinny back to the bunkhouse after spraining his ankle, he was left to finish the job alone.
Right now the only thing he could think of was sinking into a hot bath then sleeping for a week. Even that damned ornery rooster wouldn’t wake him at the crack of dawn.
Too bad it was Saturday night…but that poker game at Tim’s Saloon didn’t hold a candle to that bed waiting upstairs for him.
Sneaking in the back door he planned on getting a fresh set of clothes then head back down to the bathhouse. He didn’t think anyone wanted to get a whiff of him before a good soaking.
But to his dismay and chagrin Maria was standing right at the kitchen door, the ever present wooden spoon in her hand.
“Jaunito, where have you been?” she scolded. “Everyone is waiting for you.”
Johnny looked at her skeptically. “Waiting for me? Why?”
“It is Saturday, of course. Now get in there before the patron has another fit.”
Johnny started for the stairs. “After I have a bath…” he began, but Maria grabbed his arm, steering him toward the door leading to the great room.
“I promised Senor Murdoch that I would send you to him the minute I saw you. Now go…prisa.”
Johnny had an uncomfortable feeling that all was not well in the great room. He decided if he stayed downwind of everyone he could let them all know he was back and then get that bath he needed so badly.
But as he stepped into the huge book-lined room he spotted Scott with his back to him, his head leaning down to speak softly to someone while Teresa stood beside him, nodding at his every word.
“Johnny,” she exclaimed as she noticed him standing there. “Where have you been?”
“Yes, brother, where have you been?” Scott asked, turning to eye him critically, still hiding the person he was talking to behind him.
“Working…What are you all gussied up for?” Indeed, Scott had his best suit and string tie on, his shoes polished till they nearly blinded Johnny, and his hair combed just right.
“I’m picking up Betty for the dance tonight. But I thought I would stay and keep your date company until you got back.
//Date…dance…?// Johnny didn’t have time for the facts to sink in before Scott stepped away and Kelly Hunter stood smiling at him.
“Hi, Johnny,” she smiled hesitantly. “I hope you don’t mind that I rode over here with my father. He had business with your father and I thought we could just ride into town from here. It would be much quicker for you.”
Teresa read Johnny’s confusion and quickly stepped over to him. “Why don’t you take a quick bath and change? I have your good clothes laid out on the bed. I’m sure I can entertain Kelly until you’re ready.”
“But make it quick, brother,” Scott warned. “It’s not polite to leave a pretty woman waiting.”
Johnny sighed heavily. There went that good night’s sleep. Johnny made to say something then thought best of it. If Kelly’s father was here he could be in for a rough night…the man was bigger than Murdoch and twice as mean. And he NEVER let his daughter attend a dance unless he trusted her date one hundred percent. How Kelly ever convinced him it was safe for Johnny Madrid to escort her to the dance was way beyond him. To turn her down would be a big, and possibly painful mistake.
“Kelly, I’m sorry, I guess I got the days kinda mixed up. I’ll be ready in half an hour.”
“That’s all right, Johnny,” Kelly said sweetly. “I know how hard you work. That is one of the things I pointed out to Father…He admires a man who is willing to put in a hard day’s work.”
“Then I better get going…” Johnny started to turn back toward the door when the sound of a buggy approaching the house caught everyone’s attention.
“I wonder who that is,” Teresa said, squinting to see the driver’s face come into view.
“It looks like Mabel Montgomery,” Scott said uncomfortably.
“What is she doing here?” Kelly shot out. “She better not be trying to wiggle her way into a date for the dance tonight. You already asked me last Saturday, Johnny.”
“She must be here to see you, Teresa,” Scott tried. But the look of puzzlement on Teresa’s face shot that explanation to smithereens.
“Teresa.” Scott lifted her hand and settled it on Kelly’s elbow. “Why don’t you take Kelly into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and some of that chocolate cake you made this morning.”
“Of course.” Teresa quickly pulled Kelly toward the kitchen. “That’s a beautiful dress.”
Johnny heard Kelly sigh dreamily as she disappeared into the kitchen. “I bought it especially for the dance…isn’t it exquisite?”
Scott looked at Johnny as Mabel knocked lightly at the front door. “You didn’t ask Mabel to the dance too?” he whispered.
Johnny had turned a diffident shade of pale. “I didn’t ask anyone. Least ways I can remember. Scott, what am I gonna do?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. But Mabel can be meaner than a basket full of rattlesnakes, and Kelly’s father could pummel you straight through the ground to China with one fist tied behind his back.”
Johnny swallowed hard as Scott opened the door.
“Scott,” Mabel drawled, “ain’t you just about the handsomest thing that ever wore a pair of pants, that is besides your equally handsome brother.”
Mabel Montgomery was nearly as tall as Scott. Her flaming red hair was pulled off her face, falling in curls down her back nearly to her waist. Her soft green dress was designed to accentuate every curve of her body…the only question was, which seam would rip first when she took a full breath.
She sashayed past Scott, stopping dead in her tracks as she saw Johnny covered head to foot in sweat and dust. “I hope you aren’t gonna take me to the dance looking like that Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny looked to Scott for help but his trusted brother just bowed his head, his lips twitching, trying valiantly to cover up a smile.
“Mabel…” Johnny’s hand instinctively caressed his gun. //If I shoot Mabel than I’ll have to shoot Scott, and if I shoot Scott then Teresa will come out and I’ll have to shoot her…//
“Well, cowboy, get your tongue out of your cheek and tell me how I look. I bought this dress special for tonight. It cost me a month’s wages at the café, but it’s well worth it. I can just see all them other ladies at the dance with their corsets in a pinch. You better get yourself cleaned up, boy, I thought it would be faster if I rode out here so we could go straight to the dance.”
“I…ah…I…” Johnny wished that earthquake his brother’d been worried about ever since coming to California would hit right now…open up the earth and swallow him right up.
“Now don’t tell me you went and forgot the dance was tonight?”
“No…” Johnny looked as hurt as he could. “I just got caught out on the range. Took me longer than I expected. I’ll get cleaned up and…”
Scott cleared his throat…”Did you forget about that little problem in the kitchen?”
Johnny felt his knees wobble. //Come on brother, help me out here.// “No, I didn’t,” he spat. “Maybe you could…”
Before his thought could be completed the sound of another buggy brought their attention to the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk.
“Who’s that?” Mabel demanded.
As the buggy got closer, Mabel’s hands clutched at the folds of her skirt. “That looks like Yolanda Perez. What is she doing here? It’s not wash day.”
Johnny raised his eyes toward the sky. //God, I know I ain’t talked to you all that much, but please, I’m begging ya, help me out here. Just a little quake…enough to rattle some teeth and stop that dance tonight.//
“Miss Perez owns the store you bought that dress from,” Scott corrected. “I wouldn’t call her a wash woman to her face. I saw her deck Clem Folsom one day when he got a little frisky.”
Mabel snorted. “She’s wants a fight, I’ll give her a fight.”
“No!” Johnny stepped backwards and opened the kitchen door just enough to call for Maria. “Maria.” Johnny tried to keep the smile on his face from looking desperate. “Could you take Mabel out to the garden, maybe make her a cup of tea or something. I…”
Maria looked from Johnny to Mabel and nodded her head understandingly. “Si, Jaunito.” As he passed Johnny she whispered. “Your patron will be back shortly with Senor Hunter.”
Mabel ran her hand across Johnny’s chest as she followed Maria out the double doors to the patio. //God, I could use that earthquake now. Maybe a bit stronger than I asked for before.//
There was a knock at the door and Scott looked at Johnny incredulously. “You didn’t ask her too?”
Johnny looked at his brother, real terror in his eyes. “I didn’t ask any of ‘em, Scott. I swear. I don’t remember…”
“You went through a bottle of tequila last Saturday, you probably asked every woman in town. I tell you little brother, you are in a mess of trouble.”
“Scott, what am I gonna do?”
“I don’t know, but you better think fast. There’s another buggy heading toward us.”
Johnny looked toward the horse and buggy making its way beneath the Lancer arch, and groaned. He had faced gunmen in the street…waiting calmly as the seconds ticked by knowing that he could be dead in a matter of moments, but they paled in comparison to the fear he felt right now.
“Yolanda.” Scott smiled graciously as he opened the door. Yolanda Perez smiled, her eyes flashing with excitement. She was nearly a foot shorter than Scott. Her mass of silky black hair fell gently against her flawless olive skin. She looked breathtaking in her flowing black gown. Any man in town would give his life to have her on his arm.
“Scott, I see you are ready for the dance. I hope Johnny doesn’t mind that I drove out here. I just couldn’t see him traveling all the way to Green River and then on to Morro Coyo when I could just stop here first.”
“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t mind. Do you, Johnny?”
//God! Where’s that earthquake!?//
“No…no I don’t mind…” Johnny said weakly. He could hear the booming sound of Murdoch’s voice outside, then the unmistakable Irish accent of Molly Malone. //Maybe I shouldn’t shoot all of them…maybe I should just shoot myself. It would be easier than explaining how four women and the rest of the Lancer clan were riddled with bullets.//
“Johnny.” Yolanda stood before him, sympathy in her eyes. “You look very tired. Perhaps we should go to the dance another time.”
//At last, someone who understands.//
“I hate to disappoint you, Yolanda. But I just don’t know how I could dance one step tonight.”
“I understand.” Yolanda leaned forward and pecked Johnny on the cheek, carefully avoiding his dirty clothes. “You work so hard here. I will take my leave and we can…”
Her words died on her lips as the door opened and Molly Malone stepped in, followed by Murdoch and Mr. Hunter.
“What is she doing here?” both women asked at the same time.
“Johnny is taking me to the dance,” Yolanda said defiantly.
“No, he’s not,” Molly spat, her Irish brogue thick as her anger swelled. “Johnny’s taking me to the dance, aren’t you, Johnny?”
Johnny took an involuntary step backwards.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Hunter roared. “Johnny promised to take my Kelly to the dance.”
“That’s right,” Kelly said from the kitchen doorway. “He asked me last Saturday.”
“He asked me last Saturday too,” Mabel said as she stood at the French doors.
//God, forget the earthquake, make it a tornado…a big one.//
“Well?” Murdoch demanded. “Did you invite all these ladies to the dance at the same time?”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t remember inviting any of them, honest.” He looked toward each woman, his eyes imploring them for understanding. But all he saw was rage.
“You asked me, Johnny Lancer…” Kelly cried, running to her father. “He asked me,” she sobbed into his huge shoulder. “And I went out and bought this beautiful dress and told all my friends that I was going to the dance with the handsomest man in town…no disrespect to you, Scott,” she added. “But everyone knows you’re seeing Sally Winters.”
Scott nodded. “No disrespect taken.”
“Johnny,” Jeremiah Hunter gently pushed Kelly aside. “I think we need to have a little talk outside…just the two of us.”
“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” Murdoch said. “Anything you have to say to Johnny you can say right here in front of everyone.”
“Well, he’s gonna have to wait in line,” Mabel said. “I got some words for the cowboy myself.”
“You will have to get in line behind me then,” Yolanda said coldly. “I don’t appreciate being part of a man’s harem.”
“That’s not fair.” Scott stepped over to stand beside Johnny. “He may have not done the gentlemanly thing, but he was as drunk as a skunk when he asked you ladies.”
“Oh, he remembers all right,” Molly hissed, her words nearly impossible to understand. “He sweet talked me…”
“Like he was made of honey…” Yolanda sighed.
“Sweetest words I have ever heard,” Kelly said demurely with her father standing at her side.
Johnny shrank back, trying to escape through the kitchen door but Scott had a hold of his arm.
“Well, young man?” Murdoch roared. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Johnny shook his head. //God, forget the tornado, it ain’t nearly big enough now. In fact I don’t think there’s anything that can help me now…//
The four women stood before him, each one with an expectant look on her face. Scott and Murdoch had moved behind them, with Mr. Hunter still standing behind Kelly, his hands on her shoulders. Teresa and Maria stood next to the ladies.
“Well…? Murdoch asked again.
Johnny thought he was going to die of a heart attack at that very moment. He cleared his throat, but there were no words that would come to his mouth.
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “You have nothing to say?”
Johnny shook his head. //Just get this over with so I can die in peace.//
“Then,” Murdoch said. “We all have something to say to you.”
Everyone spoke as one. “April Fools!”
Johnny stood flabbergasted. Everyone was laughing so hard they needed each other to hold themselves up.
“This was a joke?” he asked incredulously. “A joke?”
“Yes, Son,” Murdoch answered through streaming tears.
“A joke? Everyone here?”
Scott nodded. “Everyone. You know you were due, brother. It’s just too bad that Jelly couldn’t have been here to see this.”
Johnny shook his head in disbelief.
“You’ve played your practical jokes on all of us here,” Teresa said, her voice catching as she tried to control her giggling. “It was just so funny…you should have seen your face as each new date showed up.”
“Mr. Hunter?” Johnny looked up at the towering giant of a man.
“I owed your pa a favor. But I think I will make this a free one…this was just too good. Sorry, Johnny. But if I died and went to heaven right now it would be with a smile on my face.”
Murdoch stepped closer to Johnny and sniffed the air. “I think that bath is waiting for you, son.” To the crowd of still smiling jokesters he called. “There is plenty of food in the kitchen…eat up. I have a hay wagon ready to take us all to the dance.”
Johnny pulled Scott over to the side. “They all were in on this?” he asked again.
“Ah, Johnny, don’t you understand how much you are loved? Everyone here jumped at the chance to do this. Consider it a gift and enjoy it.”
“You just wait until next year,” Johnny warned.
“There is no way you could ever get one over on me, little brother.” Scott smirked.
“I guess not,” Johnny admitted as he watched Scott walk away. //God, do ya think Scott will forgive me for that loose thread in his pants. Them things are bound to fall down just about the second dance.//
Johnny whispered, as Scott began to laughing triumphantly, “April Fools, Scott.”