Itching to Break Out
Lancer Brat Pack Series Story Six Part 1
Disclaimer: No money , no profit, no harm intended . . . well except to the Lancers, you know what they say you always hurt the one you love.
The Lancer surrey rolled to a smooth stop at the front door of the hacienda. As if sensing they were home two little boys began to stir to life. Scott sat up and stretched, upon looking back down he sheepishly wiped at the drool he had left on Papa’s leg. Johnny struggled to sit up on Ha’s lap, yawning widely, until he noticed they were home.
In the blink of an eye, before either adult could react, Johnny jumped from the buggy and sprawled out briefly in the wet dirt prior to popping up and rushing head long for the house. He beat at the massive oak door, as he was not tall enough to reach the doorknob and called out loudly.
“Johnny home, Mamacita. Johnny home.”
Just as he was winding up to shout the news again, the door opened and he was enveloped in the loving embrace of Maria.
“Ouch, Mamacita, Johnny hinny hurts, don’t squeeze so tight.”
Maria stepped from the porch as her eyes took in the sorry state of the returning family. Scott’s clothes were torn and filthy and he was sporting two black eyes. Ha had a bruise on his temple and her nino Johnny was a variety of stains from top to bottom, his hair was sticky and his bottom was apparently injured.
Murdoch almost jumped back into the surrey and sped off at the look of displeasure that deeply creased Maria’s features. Maria was extremely particular about the boys and here he was bringing them home dirty and injured.
Scott hurried to Maria’s side. She shifted Johnny to her hip, where he squirmed to find a comfortable position. Mamacita tilted Scott’s head up and studied the black eyes, then her eyes traveled over the soiled and ripped clothes.
“Ai yi yi ….what have my ninos been doing.” Turning to the men, Mamacita demanded, “What is the meaning of this.”
Ha just chuckled. Murdoch handed off the surrey and horses to one of the hands before he spoke.
“Maria, we have had quite the adventure today. Shall we go in and feed these boys and I’ll fill you in.”
“Very well, Senor. I have some important news to discuss with you.”
Over a late supper of beef stew, biscuits and apple crumble for dessert Mamacita was filled in on the day’s events. Upon hearing the news that Johnny had ‘accidentally’ robbed the bank, Maria slumped weakly down into a chair and fanned her pale face with her ever present apron.
The news of Scott’s fistfight over a marble game, secretly pleased Mamacita as she felt the little boy was much too serious and responsible for his age. Maria liked seeing him act more like the mischievous child he should be. And if Murdoch’s bemused expression as he told the tale was any indication, his father felt the same way.
However, the atmosphere in the room definitely took a turn for stormy when the subject of Johnny’s hurt hinny came up. Maria recognized from the start of the story what had taken Murdoch until they were almost home to realize, that Johnny could have fallen head first over the rail in a twenty-foot drop.
The feisty and protective Mamacita scolded and fussed, tongue clucking and Spanish flying, her finger wagging and pointing as they were all given a resounding dressing down for their inattention. When Maria was finally able to calm down from her fright and displeasure, she remembered she needed to speak with the Patron about her news.
“Senor, I needed to ask a favor but now I am not so sure I should do this thing.”
“I’m sorry, Maria I forgot you had something to tell me. What is it?”
“Today I received a telegram from my sister in Sonora. She is due to have her first baby any time now and she has asked if I will come help her for a month since Mama is dead. I wanted to go but I do not think this is a good idea now. It is obvious I am needed more here.” A spark of anger flared in her eyes with the last statement.
“Nonsense Maria. I insist you go. Lupe can fill in as cook while you are gone and Harlan can help me with the boys.”
“Absolutely, my dear, you must see to your sister. I’ll not be going back to San Francisco for six weeks. I assure you, between the two of us, Murdoch and I will make sure the boys are well tended to.”
“Hummm..ph! You did not do so good today, did you?”
“Oh, Maria. I think we were having one of those rare days when nothing goes right. We had our spell of bad luck for a while now I’m sure, everything will be fine. You’re going and I won’t take no for an answer. You deserve the time. When did you want to leave?”
“I will leave next Saturday. That gives me plenty of time to make you some notes about the boys and their care and needs.”
The week flew by in a flurry of activity. Maria insisted the house be cleaned top to bottom. All the laundry was done and up and in between tasks Mamacita baked up a supply of cookies for the boys. She also wrote down their favorite meals and the recipes she used. Every night she grilled the two men and reviewed her notes with them. Friday night she finally admitted she felt they would be able to handle anything, even though she had her misgivings after the trying morning.
Both boys had been informed that Maria was going away for a while but that she would be back. She had promised to bring them each a candy filled piñata. They had seemed fine with the news.
However that morning, Scott had a fit and crying spell about going to school. He had rushed around the breakfast table and flew into Maria’s arms when Murdoch announced it was time to leave for school. The little blond worked himself into such a distraught state Johnny began to wail too, where upon Harlan removed him from his high chair and walked into another room with him. By the time his Papa convinced him to turn loose of Mamacita so they could leave, all the adults were upset too. That was the first clue that something was going wrong already.
After Scott’s uncharacteristic fit and crying spell, Johnny had become whiny and clingy, preferring to spend most of the day in the kitchen with Mamacita. Johnny being a child of nature and energy normally enjoyed the freedom and space outside. It didn’t matter what the weather was like he was outside at every opportunity. Yet, this morning he had stayed on Mamacita’s heels or hip. That was the second indication of the dismaying events to come; that went unheeded.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. There was a definite chill in the air that was stirred swiftly with a stiff breeze, perfect weather for the day’s plans. It had been decided Friday night that Ha and Papa would take the boys out into one of the fields to fly their kites that Grandfather had brought back from San Francisco this last time. They hoped the activity would keep the boys from being pre-occupied with Maria’s departure and would tire them out for the evening.
The arousing aroma of fresh brewed coffee along with the strong scent of urine snatched Murdoch from his sleep. He groaned as he came fully awake, this was not the way to greet the day with twenty some pounds of wet toddler draped across his chest. He didn’t even realize Scott was in the bed too until he felt him move against his side as he struggled to sit up.
“Ewwww…..yuck….Papa, Johnny peed on me.” Scott whined as he burst into tears.
And so Murdoch Lancer’s day started with one son leaking at the bottom the other from the top. Johnny still had not stirred. Murdoch clutched him to his chest and sat up. He threw back the covers so a squirming Scott could untangle himself and scramble off the bed.
Scott’s feet hit the floor and he began to jump up and down flapping his nightshirt, his angry heels thumping loudly on the hardwood floor. And then he began to wail loudly.
“Now I have to take a bath. I had to take a bath last night, I don’t want one this morning.”
Murdoch started to speak, only to be painfully stopped by a vicious sneeze from a waking Johnny that connected his little head solidly with Papa’s mouth. After his mouth quit throbbing and the stars halted their orbit around his face, he tried to bring the escalating situation under control.
“Scott Garrett Lancer, you calm down right now. I will not tolerate this behavior this morning.” A swift one-handed pop to the backside finally got the irate boy’s attention.
“Ooouuuu….Squat is a bad boy.” Stated a now awake Johnny.
“I’m not a bad boy, you’re a bad BABY! You wet your diaper!” Scott hollered as he dissolved into a new round of tears.
“NO! Johnny not wet diaper!”
Johnny struggled to get out of Papa’s arms as he argued with his brother. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he snatched up his nightshirt to reveal a naked bottom.
“See Squat, Johnny not wear diaper.”
Murdoch groaned as it became clear how Johnny had managed to soak himself and two others.
“Johnny, where is your diaper? You know you’re suppose to wear one at night, just for sleeping.”
“Johnny take it off cause Johnny hinny hurt.”
Murdoch thought nothing of Johnny’s statement, as he assumed he was referring to the tenderness at the splinter site, unaware itching was the hurt Johnny meant.
“Well boys like it or not, baths are the first order of the day. And if these attitudes don’t change there will be no kite flying today. Now lets gather up some clothes and head to the bathhouse.”
A soft knock at the door preceded Ha’s entrance. After few steps into the room he stopped and looked at his family with eyebrows arched in perplexity. Johnny was naked from the waist down as he was holding up his nightshirt. Scott had fresh tears on his face and the side of his sleepwear was wet. Murdoch looked frazzled and harried and the front of his nightshirt was so soaked it was plastered to his chest.
“I was going to say Good Morning, but I ‘m not sure it would be received in the spirit intended. May I be of some service.”
“Ha, Johnny peed on me and Papa spanked me!”
“Scott, I popped you because you were having a fit, not because you were wet.”
“Ha . . . Squat called Johnny a bad baby. Johnny not baby, Johnny a big boy. Johnny just like Squat.”
“Arrrgghhhh . . . you are a baby you can’t even say my name right.”
“Yeah huh! Squat Carrot Lancer.”
Scott rolled his eyes, slapped his own forehead and then scrubbed his hands up and down his face in mad agitation.
“I’m not a CARROT!”
“Yes, Squat are, just like Ha is Holler Carrot and Papa is Mur-doctor Carrot Lancer.” With that said, Johnny flopped down onto the floor with his nightshirt still up around his waist, bare butt on the cold floor and began to sob incoherently.”
He was so distraught he missed the amused and delighted expressions on the adult’s faces over his pronunciation of what he thought their names were.
Harlan moved forward and knelt next to the upset child and soothingly rubbed his back. “Here now tell Ha why you’re so upset. Ha will make it better.”
Johnny turned to lay his head against Ha’s leg as he snubbed and panted while he tried to speak. “Everybody is a Carrot, Johnny want be called a Carrot too!” He began to wail loudly again.
“Of course we can call you a Carrot. I declare from this day on you are Johnny Madrid Carrot Lancer. Are you happy now?” Queried Ha.
“Yes,huh.” Johnny replied as he began to calm down, using the tale of his urine soaked shirt to wipe his tears.
As Johnny’s emotional storm abated, Scott’s roared to life.
“That’s not fair, Garrett is my name. If he gets to be a Garrett then I get to be Scott Madrid Garrett Lancer,” demanded an incensed Scott.
“As you wish.” Agreed Ha. “Now you boys come along with me to the bathhouse and lets get started with your bath.”
“I’ll strip the bed, get some clothes and be right behind you.” Stated Murdoch.
Harlan left the room with a little boy on each side, small hands clutched trustingly into his. The warm hands sent a contented pleasurable feeling straight to his heart. He loved being a Grandfather….even when both boys were wet with tears and urine.
By the time Murdoch pulled off the soaked nightshirt and donned his robe, stripped the bed and gathered up clean clothes, Harlan had one of the tubs filled and had both boys sitting in it. He was busy filling the largest tub for his son-in-law when Murdoch walked into the spacious bathhouse.
Murdoch smiled and shook his head at the sight of both boys sitting in one tub. Scott was busy soaping a cloth and rubbing it all over himself, while Johnny entertained himself with his little wooden boats. It seemed the morning’s fight was forgiven and forgotten.
“I was afraid to put Johnny in a tub by himself since I knew he wouldn’t have my full attention while I filled this one.”
“It saves time and water to bathe them that way, as long as Scott is all right with it.”
“You go ahead and pull a screen around your bath, I’ll see to it Johnny gets . . .”
The conversation came to an abrupt halt when a scream; proceeded by a loud splash and the flop of little wet feet on the tile floor drew their attention. Johnny ran, slipping and sliding, leaving a trail of water in his mad dash for safety. While Scott scooted down in the tub until just the crown of his blond head showed.
“Help Papa, help Ha.”
“What’s this all about,” asked Murdoch as he scooped the distressed child into his arms.
“Squat say him gonna make Johnny legs falled off.”
Papa and Ha started towards the boy’s tub. Scott’s head moved slowly upward, until the bottom of his eyes was level with the edge of the bath, he watched with leery, apprehension their progress across the room.
“Scott, what is Johnny talking about. Did you tell him you were going to make his legs fall off?”
“No . .. .er..sir.”
“Young man, let me rephrase that. What did you tell him?” Papa said sternly.
Scott didn’t know why he felt so contrary this morning. Maybe it was because his throat was sore and it felt like bugs were crawling on him. Whatever the reason, the look on Papa’s face and the hard tone in his voice convinced him it was time to straighten up and tell the truth.
“I told him that if he put his finger in his belly button while his legs are underwater they will fall off and then I pretended like I was going to put my finger in his.”
“See…Squat the bad Carrot, Johnny the good Carrot.”
Murdoch sighed in exhausted exasperation, he was beginning to think perhaps he and Harlan might have bitten off more than they could chew for the next month and Maria hadn’t even left yet. He had to fight the desperate urge to rush helter skelter into the kitchen and tell her he had changed his mind. Instead he sucked up his fear and misgivings and went into serious Papa mode.
“Boys, this whining, crying and fighting stops now. We are not going to send Maria off with this kind of behavior. Or after breakfast you two will spend the day in your rooms instead of flying kites. Now we are going to clean up and go eat breakfast, and if . . . only if you behave during breakfast, then we will go fly kites.”
Murdoch disappeared behind the privacy screen to tend to his morning hygiene. Ha helped Johnny wash up and let him play with his boats as he helped Scott dry off. While Scott dressed himself, Harlan coaxed Johnny from the bath with a promise of a peppermint stick after lunch. Once clothed Scott headed to the kitchen to enjoy some time with Mamacita without Johnny underfoot.
Ha laughed in delight as he toweled the squirming little body. Harlan had a personal theory that Johnny was small of stature for his age not only because he had been a sickly baby but also because he was so active, it took most of his nutrient intake just to keep him going.
By the time he wrangled the little whirlwind into his clothes Murdoch had bathed, shaved and dressed.
Murdoch and Harlan entered the kitchen, each holding one of Johnny’s hands, swinging him in between them. Johnny’s giggle bubbled out of his mouth with contagious good cheer.
“Look Squat, Johnny a monkey like at the circus.”
“You can’t be a monkey Johnny you don’t have a tail. You’ll have to be an ape, remember the animal trainer said you can tell a monkey cause they have long tails, but baboons and gorillas are apes cause they don’t.”
It would be hard to say whose buttons were protruding further, threatening to pop from the fabric of their shirts in the chest puffing proud moment over the display of recall and intelligence by Scott. Ha and Papa looked at each other and smiled and the next second they both choked as they almost swallowed their tongues over Johnny’s retort.
“Okay, Squat, Johnny be the go-riller, but do Johnny have to smell other peoples hinnys like they do?”
“No, Johnny cause you’re not a real gorilla, you’re just pretending.” Scott rolled his eyes and then mouthed to the adults, ‘Kids’.
Harlan leaned towards Murdoch as he scooped Johnny up to place him in his high chair and whispered, “Whew, I’m glad Scott took care of that explanation.”
“You’re not the only one,” agreed a relieved Murdoch.
Maria had fixed a pancake breakfast, with homemade fruit preserves to top them along with the maple syrup Ha had shipped regularly from Vermont. She thought she would indulge the boys with the sweet breakfast since she knew they would be running off the sugar high while flying their kites.
Scott insisted that Maria sit at the table with them since after breakfast Mamacita would be leaving on her trip. He moved his chair to Johnny’s side of the table so she would be in between the two boys. Johnny reverted to the clingy disposition of the day before and wouldn’t eat unless Mamacita fed him.
Breakfast was quiet, Ha and Papa tried to engage the boys in conversation about the kite flying expedition, but it seemed that just reminded the boys of the coming departure and separation. Finally the two men decided to let the boys have their time with Maria, and began to discuss stock prices.
When Cipriano knocked and entered the kitchen door to let his wife know it was time to head for Cross Creek and the train depot. Johnny began to wail as he latched onto Mamacita’s neck, pulling himself into her lap, while Scott dropped his chin on to his chest and wiped furiously at the warm tears cascading down his face.
“Shush…it’s all right ninos. I will be back before you know it. You are going to have much fun with your Papa and Grandfather. Let me show you something.”
Maria nodded at Cipriano and he walked into the pantry and came out with a very large jar that was filled with a variety of Maria’s homemade cookies. He walked to the table and set it in front of Maria and the boys. He gave Scott a wink and rubbed his blond head with affection. Scott was able to muster a small teary smile for him. Johnny however glared at Cip because he was going to take Maria away; he clung tighter to her neck.
“Now my boys, in this jar I have placed enough cookies for you each to have one everyday. When you get to the last three cookies in the jar that’s the day I will be back and we will eat the last three cookies together with a cup of hot cocoa.”
“You won’t forget us?” sniffed Scott as he bravely tried to keep fresh tears at bay.
“No my darling, I could never forget you and I will be back. Now you must promise me you will be good boys. I’m going to tell my sister all about you and when I get home I want a good report from your Papa about how good you have been so I can write her and brag about it.”
Maria hugged Scott urgently to her breast, as Johnny clung frantically to her side. Murdoch lifted the crying child so she could stand. After standing, Maria removed her apron. It was her favorite one, white with a print of small blue flowers. It was old and the fabric was comfortingly soft from repeated washing. The lower left corner of it was just about threadbare from Johnny standing at her side holding on to it while she worked.
“Johnny, will you do me a favor?”
Johnny lifted his head from his Papa’s shoulder, tears swimming in his eyes, thumb stuck securely in his mouth. He nodded his head yes at Mamacita.
“Will you take care of my favorite apron for me while I’m gone. I don’t want it to get lost and I will need it when I get home to fix you a big supper.”
Johnny took the apron and rubbed it slowly against his cheek. He took a deep breath and when he did he smiled. The apron smelled like Mamacita, like biscuits and cookies and the pretty purple flowers that she grew in her garden.
“Johnny can. Johnny do a good job.”
Putting on a bright cheerful smile, that her heart did not share, Maria gave one last kiss and hug to each boy. She didn’t look back as she exited the house and climbed into the wagon with the help of her husband’s supporting hand. By the time they passed under the Lancer arch she was wailing out her own distressed feelings of separation.
Murdoch paced into the great room, and headed to the large rocker with Johnny cradled in his arms. He considered himself a tough man, in his time he had seen some of the ugly aspects of life, but nothing ever affected him or hurt him like the tears of one of his boys. Their heart broken cries could reduce him to a quivering mass, feeling like his heart was pulled from him still beating and thrown down at his feet. Johnny cuddled against his chest; Mamacita’s apron balled up in his tiny hands and pressed tightly to his red, mottled face.
Harlan followed with Scott hugged up against his side. At moments like this, he would give anything to make the pain his grandsons were experiencing, whether physical or mental, go away. Ha would happily sell everything he had, if he needed to, and live in a one-room shack as long as these children were there too. He sat with Scott on the couch and pulled a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and helped Scott dry his tears and blow his nose.
Several minutes passed in silence, except for the tick tock of the large ornate Grandfather clock as it kept the rhythm of time and life. The reassuring steady pace of the ticking soon helped hearts racing in anguish to slow back down to normal.
“Papa, is Mamacita really coming home again?” Asked Johnny in a voice muffled by the treasured apron still pressed against his face. He sniffed the familiar scents of Maria and felt better, calmer.
“Yes, son she is. I promise, and you know Papa keeps his promises.” /Please dear God; don’t let anything happen to her while she’s gone./
“I’m sure she coming back too!” Stated Scott as he bravely wiped his face and put on a smile for his little brother. “She didn’t sneak away without telling us and she didn’t say good-bye, she said she wanted a good report when she got home. Sometimes Ha goes away but he always comes back.”
“That is very true, Scotty. Sometimes I have to go away; this time it was Maria’s turn. And you’ll have just as much fun welcoming her home, as you do me.”
Johnny scrunched his tear-streaked face up as he considered his brother and Ha’s words. And Papa’s too, he knew Papa didn’t make promises he didn’t keep, especially ones about spankings. Seeing how sure everyone was, Johnny’s mood swung from fearful heartbreak to ready for fun. He jumped from Papa’s lap and shouted.
“Let’s go fly kites, Johnny ready.”
Thrilled that the drama was over, Murdoch stood and clapped his hands. “You boys go get your kites and come back down here to get your coats on. We’re taking a wagon because Maria packed us a big picnic basket.”
As the boys clambered excitedly up the staircase chattering happily, Harlan turned to Murdoch and commented, “ Thank God we have always been the ones to tuck them in at night. I don’t even want to think about what an ordeal that would be if they were use to her being here for the nightly routine.”
Murdoch’s face paled at just the thoughts of that scenario, before he could get too maudlin about it, the boys came tumbling back down the steps. Johnny still had the apron clutched in one hand and his kite in the other.
“Johnny, don’t you think you should leave the apron here, you don’t want to lose it.” Murdoch reached for the garment as he spoke.
Hiding the apron behind his back, the stubborn Lancer in Johnny reared it’s iron jawed head. “NO! Johnny take care of it.”
“But son, what if you lay it down and lose it? You can’t keep it in your hand all the time. It won’t fit in your pocket, and I really don’t think you want to wear it around your waist.”
Seeing the tears about to return, Ha came to the rescue. He knelt down in front of his tiny grandson. “I have the perfect solution, may I?” He held his hand out for the apron. Johnny studied him a second before handing it over.
Ha folded each apron string in half and knotted it at the waist of the garment so they were both shorter. Once that was done, he whipped the apron to the side with a flourish and lifted it over Johnny’s head to drop down his shoulders. He then tied it loosely around his neck.
“There, now you have a matador’s cape, like the bullfighters wear.”
No one bothered to point out to Johnny, that the cape should be red lined, if he was happy everyone else was too.
Ha helped Johnny wiggle into his coat, he certainly couldn’t be accused of standing still to put it on. Scott was able to put his own on. Murdoch strode into the kitchen to retrieve the picnic basket. When he came back, both boys had on their coats and hats and were getting their noses wiped by Ha. Both men assumed the runny noses were from crying.
The ride to the field near the North pasture was quiet as Scott and Johnny despite their excitement fell asleep not five minutes into the ride. So Murdoch slowed the pace and a trip that should have taken only fifteen minutes took thirty. It had been a trying morning and Papa and Ha figured a twenty-five minute nap certainly might go along way towards restoring sunny dispositions.
The North pasture was fenced off, but Murdoch had left a large field next to it free of the barbed wire because he was considering planting a new type grass to try with the cattle. It was the perfect place to fly kites. There was a nice stand of oaks to park the wagon under, and just inside the fence was a small pond. The field was at the slope of the mountain; they would get a good wind coming off the mountain insuring good lift for the kites. And Murdoch knew he would be the one that would have to run and get the kites air borne and he was also sure he could use all the help he could from Mother Nature.
The wagon rumbled to a stop under the copse of trees. Papa and Ha turned and looked into the flat bed of it at the sleeping boys. Scott was slumped against the side, his legs splayed open with Johnny tucked in between them. Scott’s arms were wrapped securely around his little brother’s chest, hugging him in close. Johnny’s hat had fallen to the side and dangled by the drool sodden storm string still clenched in his mouth.
The two adults got down and walked to the end of the wagon.
“It almost seems a shame to wake them. They look so peaceful and innocent.” Sighed Ha.
“Not to mention it’s the only time Johnny is not getting into something.” Mused Murdoch.
“Shall we let them continue their rest for a while longer?”
“Do you want them to sleep tonight?” Murdoch pointed out.
Ha gave a nervous shudder and then clapped his hands calling out cheerfully, “Who wants to fly kites?”
Both boys woke up with a sluggish scowl on their faces until they realized where they were. Murdoch began to feel the first niggling of worry that something besides upset over Maria’s trip might be wrong, normally the boys woke with smiles and eager anticipation unless they were sick. When they were sick they became whiny, cranky, clingy, and nothing could please them.
Scott pushed Johnny into a standing position and then stood himself, swaying slightly. The boys stumbled to the tailgate, Murdoch grasped Scott and Ha grabbed Johnny and lifted them to the ground. Though neither man said anything, they both thought the children felt a little warm, but easily passed it off as them having been asleep with the sun shining down on them.
Murdoch had to walk around to the side of the wagon and reach in to grab the kites as the sleep-muddled boys had left them under the overhang from the seat. Ha had purchased the kites from a toyshop in San Francisco. While traditional in style, these kites were sturdy with hand painted designs on them.
Ha had chosen designs suited to each child. Scott was very interested in birds and had several books about them. His was sky blue with an eagle in flight. Johnny was interested in one thing, horses. His kite was crimson red with a beautiful palomino galloping across it.
Now that their feet were on the ground, both boys came fully awake and excited at the same time. There was a brisk breeze flowing down the mountainside, as it scooted across the field it would pick up long strands of loose grass and twirl them about as if they were waltzing. Johnny squealed at the sight and ran out into the open area, jumping and grabbing at the grass. When he caught one he would laugh and throw it back into the air to continue it’s fanciful flight.
Scott watched a minute, before the little boy in him reared it’s head and he shot off to join his little brother. Being taller and more coordinated Scott would target the center of one the grass filled mini-whirlwinds and then jumped up through it’s center, arms flailing about, sending the grass into wild disarray.
Murdoch and Ha laughed in delight, their hearts glad that the anxiety of the morning seemed to have passed. They watched the children run and cavort for thirty minutes before they finally tired. Two red-faced panting boys ran back to the wagon, where Papa and Ha sat on the tailgate enjoying the beautiful morning.
“Papa, Johnny firsty.”
“I’ll bet you are. You’ve been playing hard.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side, the tip of his tongue peeked out the corner of his mouth, he had a look of intense concentration on his face. Johnny squeezed his arms; he grabbed at his thighs and then pinched his own cheeks. “No, Papa. Johnny soft.”
Scott rolled his eyes and shook his head, “ Oh, Johnny you can be so silly.”
Before the boys could disagree with each other, Ha turned from where he had been rummaging in the picnic basket and held up their canteens. The boys took the caps off and then guzzled the cool sweet apple juice.
“You boys sit down and give that juice a chance to settle, and then we’ll fly your kites.” Requested Murdoch.
The children plopped down on the ground. Johnny sighed loudly, bored before the dirt he disturbed could settle back down. Once again Ha came to the rescue. They all loved to hear Johnny recite his own version of nursery rhymes or retell the stories Ha had told him.
“Johnny can you tell your brother the story I told you last night? Do you remember it?”
Scott crossed his legs and leaned back on his hands. He had to pretend to just be putting up with this but secretly he loved his little brother’s mangled versions of Ha’s nightly stories.
In a move that made him favor his Papa, Johnny ran a small baby dimpled finger beside his nose and then tapped his lips. His eyes lit up as he ordered his thoughts as only Johnny could.
“One upon a time,” Johnny started. “There was three house pigs. A grass pig, a stick pig and a brick pig. And they wanted to go up the hillside to builded their houses.”
Shaking his head and widening his eyes in warning, “But they had to cross a bridge, and unner this bridge lived a big bad wolf.” Falling forward on to his hands and knees he growled.
“So the three house pigs waited until it was dark and they snucked across that bridge, real quiet.” Laying a finger against his lips, he shushed everyone as he crept about on his tiptoes.
“The first pig was very lazy, soon as he got over the bridge he builded a grass house, went inside and falled asleep.” Lying down, he pretended to snore.
Sitting back up he continued, “The nother pig was a little lazy so he went more far and builded a house out of sticks, then he went inside and eated porridge.”
“And the last piggy weren’t lazy or nothing so he went to the top of the hill where the well was and builded a brick house, then he went in and cooked a pot of water. Next thing you know its morning.” Jumping up Johnny stretched and yawned.
The big bad wolf woked up and he started smelling something.” Scrunching his face up, Johnny sniffed at the air.
“That’s when he saw it, muddy pigs feets prints on his bridge. So he ran across the bridge and saw a grass house.” Shading his eyes with his hand, Johnny pointed off in the distance.
“He was so mad he huffed and puffed and blowed the house down.” Johnny pursed his lips blowing until his face turned red and spittle dribbled down his chin.
“Then him seen the stick house and wanted to pull the hairs off a chinny chin chin and then he blowed down the stick house. He was gonna blow down the brick house but he was tired from blowing down the two houses so he slided down the chimney into the pot of cooked water and the three pigs eated him right up cause he was just right. The end.” Johnny concluded as he scratched at his head.
By the time Johnny finished his convoluted story that consisted of several condensed into one, Scott was scratching his own head in perplexity and Papa and Ha were about to implode from holding back the belly laugh they desperately needed to let loose.
“Can we fly kites now?” begged Scott.
“Absolutely, son.” Murdoch handed Scott his blue kite. Then turned to Johnny, “Johnny how about I hold up your kite while you run so it won’t bump along the ground and possibly break.
Murdoch and the boys walked to the middle of the field. The wind seemed to be swirling and dipping across the landscape. Large tufts of grass would roll and tumble across the ground and then get caught in an updraft and take flight like a flock of stringy birds.
Scott let loose some of his string and began to run towards the base of the mountainous hill. The kite flipped and flopped behind him like a fish out of water; rising high enough every few steps to twirl like a top before crashing to the ground again. To his credit the little boy didn’t give up. He would stop and inspect his kite for damage and then take off again, slender spindly legs pounding across the grass.
Johnny held his string and ran along the same path as Scott. His little legs pumped and every few steps he seemed to stumble. Murdoch trotted behind him holding the kite aloft and trying his best to adjust his stride so he didn’t accidentally stomp his small son.
Ha watched his family’s futile efforts to send the kites aloft into flight. He observed that some of the clumps of grass that the wind would spin across the land before flinging it into the sky to soar had to weigh as much if not more than the kites. After twenty minutes or so Harlan’s analytical mind had it figured out, and he called out the solution.
“You’re running against the wind, turn around and head back this way and the wind should be able to catch and lift the kites.”
Ha had no sooner spoke than Johnny veered and ran in the opposite direction, catching Murdoch by surprise, snatching the kite from his hand. Johnny galloped onward, as fast as a three year old can. A stiff breeze slid down the mountain, pushing at the little boy’s back hurrying him along, and catching the kite in an updraft. The kite lifted, dipping side to side like an injured bird trying to take off and then it shot up as a current of air stabilized it and it was air borne.
“Let out some string, Johnny . . . like when we fish.” Hollered Papa.
Johnny awkwardly unwound string allowing his kite to climb higher and higher against the bright blue sky. Scott went racing by his kite bouncing until suddenly it was seized by an air stream and ascended into the cloudless atmosphere.
Ha clapped and called out his congratulations over their success. Murdoch bent over, hands on his thighs, getting his breathing under control before he was able to praise them as well. Then he walked back to the wagon to sit with Harlan on the tailgate.
“Whew,” Murdoch huffed out as he sat, “I’m getting too old for all this running.”
“Nonsense, son. You’re thirty-one. I think you have quite a few years left in you yet. I think you’re just a little out of condition, you’re use to riding a horse, not walking or running.”
“Well …, if they hadn’t soon got the kites up I just might have unhitched the horse to help.
The two men fell into a companionable silence as they watched the children flying their kites. Their squeals and peals of laughter caused the men’s hearts to feel as light as the paper toys. Johnny’s apron cape fluttered up in the breeze and wrapped around his neck to hang down his chest, it looked like the garment was hugging him.
A particularly strong blast of wind whistled down the mountain, buffeting Johnny and propelling him forward. The stream of air climbed higher taking the kite along. In the next few seconds the kite achieved a lofty height in a stronger current and Johnny ran out of string.
The wind refused to turn the kite loose; it tugged mightily on the fragile paper. Johnny was determined not to lose the toy and he clung tenaciously to the wooden stick the string was attached too. The law of physics kicked in . . . the small boy found himself being pulled along as the kite tried to break free of its confining leash. The wind tugged viciously and Johnny held on tighter, his feet slid across the slick grass like an ice skater on a frozen pond. Then his feet left the ground, he kicked wildly slinging off one of his boots. The boot went sailing through the air and struck Scott on the right temple.
“OUCH!” screamed Scott
Scott’s scream drew the attention of the adults. Papa and Ha were stunned to see Johnny alternating between gliding and jumping across the field. Oddly enough Harlan was the first to shake off his frozen disbelief. Ha went from dead stand still to full out run in the blink of an eye.
“Drop the stick, Johnny DROP THE STICK!”
Where the old guy found the breath to shout and run at the same time was miraculous. Murdoch was hot on his heels. The two adults reached Johnny at the same time, just as he was rising, feet kicking, shrieking in delight that he was no longer earth bound. Ha grabbed Johnny around the waist; Murdoch got control of the kite.
Scott was flabbergasted and just a little jealous of Johnny’s momentary flight. “No fair, I want to fly too.” Scott whined.
Murdoch noted the chilled hands and wind burned faces of the boys. Their noses were running more too. Scott had his handkerchief half hanging out of his pocket; Johnny had shiny trails across his face and coat sleeve. “Boys, I think it’s time to reel in the kites and have some lunch.”
Neither boy argued with Papa’s decision, and the niggling of worry he had felt earlier officially changed to a warning flag in his mind. They helped the boys pull in their kites and then headed back to the wagon for lunch.
Ha spread out a colorful quilt on the ground, while Murdoch escorted the boys to an appropriate area to relieve themselves. He brought them back to the wagon and poured water over their hands from the canteen to clean them.
Harlan had unloaded part of the basket. There were roast beef sandwiches, carrot sticks, celery stalks, apples to slice, hunks of cheese and a jar of tea for the adults. Murdoch with his typical rancher’s appetite ate two sandwiches to Harlan’s one. The boys shared a sandwich each eating a half. Both boys refused to eat the raw vegetables and fruit that normally they loved. They did however practically drain their little canteens of the apple juice.
Murdoch studied the children as they ate. He noted how both boys were continually sniffing and wiping at their noses. He was concerned that their appetites were off and they both seemed overly thirsty. The most troubling evidence of his growing worry was their flushed faces had not cooled after sitting for thirty minutes to eat. The warning flag in his mind now officially had alarm written on it.
Papa was trying to decide how to break it to the boys that they should head home after lunch even though they had planned to be out all day. It became a rather moot point when Ha tried to entice the boys to eat more by pulling out the plate of Maria’s homemade molasses cookies. The men were shocked by the atypical reaction.
Scott’s eyes welled up and his chin began to tremble. Johnny grabbed a cookie and clutched it to his chest, crumbling it down his jacket and started wailing loudly. Papa pulled the distraught baby into his lap and cooed soothingly to him. Ha settled Scott on his lap, hugging and rocking him.
“Well, Ha, I think it’s time we head home. I believe the boys have had all they can handle today. Papa was sure he made the right choice when neither boy complained. They sat a few minutes until the little ones got their emotions under control.
“I want to go home,” pleaded Scott as he sat up and wiped his face with his hankie.
Johnny had gone limp and silent on Papa’s shoulder. Murdoch sat him up and moved him forward so he could use his handkerchief to clean the mucus and tears from him. He grimaced at the remnants of tear sodden cookie that was scattered on his coat and Johnny’s. He brushed off the crumbs and then stood, settling Johnny on his hip.
“All right my little men, lets load the wagon up and go home.”
Murdoch strode to the wagon and sat Johnny down in the bed, and then he lifted Scott in as well. He went back to help Harlan repack the picnic basket and fold the quilt. When the two men came back to the wagon, Scott was sitting with his back against the side. Johnny was sitting in his brother’s lap, with his arms wrapped around him and his head resting on Scott’s shoulder. Johnny had already fallen asleep, but Scott was fighting it, his head bobbing up and down.
By the time Murdoch had checked the harness and then climbed up and seated himself beside Harlan, Scott was asleep too. Murdoch stepped into the wagon bed and gently laid the boys down, covering them with the picnic quilt.
When he retook his seat he looked at Harlan and sighed, “I hate to say it, but they’re getting sick.”
“Without a doubt they are. Of course this could explain why they fell apart this morning over Maria’s departure, they had been fine with it.”
“Yes, they had been. I should have realized this morning from Scott’s mood. He’s never been one to be so openly emotional; usually he’ll hold it in until he gets some place private. Where as Johnny will voice his anger or happiness loud and clear for one and all to hear.”
“I guess you and I will be on nursing duty for the next few days. I can manage the boys during the day while you’re out and about on the ranch.”
“Do you want me to hire one of the hand’s wives to come in and help you?”
“Absolutely not. The boys will have enough upheaval with being sick and Maria being away without having to deal with someone they’re not use to. No my dear boy, I am quite sure you and I can muddle through this little inconvenience.”
Murdoch snorted over the term ‘little inconvenience’. He bit his tongue to keep from voicing aloud his thought of define little inconvenience. Not that it would make any difference, like any besotted Grandfather, Harlan never saw the boys as anything but perfect.
As the wagon started forward, both little boys were scratching their heads in their sleep.
The utter stillness of night was rent by wailing, the sound seemed to hit the walls and vibrate out much like a stone thrown in a river causes water rings to ripple outward until they disappear. The humming echo of the cry faded and it was replaced by an equally loud sob, this one finally roused the two men in the house.
Murdoch and Harlan stumbled on sleep heavy limbs into the hall almost colliding with each other as they struggled to pull on their robes. They both realized at the same moment that the sounds of distress were coming from the nursery. They picked up their pace when yet another screech sailed down the hall, hoping to get there before Scott’s sleep was disturbed too.
Entering Johnny’s room, they could see him sitting up in the middle of his bed, his little form illuminated by the ethereal light of moonbeam streaming through the window. Johnny was bawling and rubbing his hands in his hair. Ha went to light the lamp, and Murdoch moved to the bed to pick up the distraught child. The match flared against the dark in the room just as Papa lifted Johnny, though he didn’t need the lamp lit to feel the wetness of the nightshirt or the heat consuming his baby’s body.
“What’s wrong with Papa’s little man?”
Johnny sniveled and tried to burrow into Papa’s chest. He didn’t know where to start, he was wet, he was hungry and thirsty and most of all he itched. He chose to complain about the thing he knew Papa usually fixed the fastest.
Neither boy would eat supper after their day of kite flying. They had taken one look at the food Lupe provided and had announced it didn’t look like Mamacita’s. They had finally agreed to at least eat a biscuit and drink their milk. They ended up just drinking the milk. When they had tried to bite the biscuits they had been unable to chew through them.
Murdoch and Harlan had tried the biscuits too. They were like rocks, and the attempt to bite them left a bitter salty after taste in their mouth and white flour rings on their lips. Murdoch had commented he had seen boulders softer than the baked bread. Both men had laughed heartily when they caught Scott and Johnny using the left-over biscuits as boulders for Scott’s tin soldiers in a game of war, that had escalated into a battle between the brother’s, resulting in an earlier bedtime.
“Let’s get you clean and dry and we’ll go get a little snack.”
Ha chortled as he gathered up a nightshirt, dry diaper and wet cloth. “I thought two a.m. feedings were a thing of the past.” He was remembering back to when Johnny was an infant. Maria had graciously wet nursed him for all his feedings until he was six weeks old, and then Papa and Ha bottle-fed him his nightly and early morning feedings. Both men had relished the task and sometimes laughed to find themselves racing to be the one to reach him first when he cried out.
Murdoch laid Johnny on the dry foot of the bed and stripped the soiled sleepwear from him. His jaw clenched when he saw Johnny had taken off his night diaper again. He had warned him about that this morning. He hesitated about scolding him, knowing he wasn’t feeling well, his temperature was definitely higher than when he went to bed.
When Murdoch stood up straighter more light from the now lit lamp radiated onto Johnny’s nude form, he could see now that Johnny appeared to have some kind of rash in the crease of his thighs. He bent closer to inspect it and reach out with a tentative finger to feel it. The spots were definitely raised. He called out to Harlan.
“Harlan, look at this. Johnny has some kind of bumps in his diaper area. I don’t think it’s a diaper rash either.”
Ha hurried to the bed with the items he had gathered. He placed them on the bed and then picked up the lamp to get a better look. “Oh no,” he whispered. Turning to face his son-in-law with concerned eyes he stated, “I believe it is chickenpox.”
“Careful, careful, little ears are listening.”
“Harlan, what in the world are we going to do? This isn’t just a little cold. This is two weeks of house arrest with two little boys that are the world’s worst patients; you can bet if Johnny has it so does Scott. They get whiny, cranky and unbearable when they are sick.”
“Just like their father,” declared Harlan. “We’ll just have to deal with it. I think you should send for Doctor Jenkins first thing in the morning. Hopefully he will be able to advise us on some treatments or medicines to help the boys.”
“Papa, I don’t feel good.”
The two adults turned towards the voice coming from the doorway of the nursery just in time to see Scott empty the contents of his stomach in a spectacular gushing geyser that shot practically halfway across the room.
The stench of curdled milk gagged the men and Johnny. Before either one could react, the milk Johnny had consumed for his supper added another layer of wetness to the already urine soaked bedding. The vomitus not only coated the bed, it also fell back into Johnny’s face and hair, as he was lying prone a top the mattress.
Scott began to cry and clutch at his stomach, reduced to dry heaves. Ha rushed to his side, as Murdoch grabbed Johnny up and flipped him over his arm so he could finish expelling the milk that had obviously soured on his stomach. When he was done Murdoch wrapped him in a towel.
Scott’s bout of sickness appeared to be over or either quite simply he had nothing left to bring up. He was sitting in the nursery rocker, crying silent, face pale, and digging at his neck, as Ha rubbed his back and soothed him. Murdoch picked up the lamp and walked over to his oldest son. It was a little awkward but he managed to kneel with Johnny clutched in one arm, his other hand holding the lamp.
“Put your head back, Scott,” he requested.
In the glow of the light, in the nursery reeking of sickness and urine, Papa and Ha’s fears were confirmed. The itchy raised red bumps, just like the ones on Johnny’s bottom, covered Scott’s neck. The insidious malady mocked them, taunted them with the knowledge that they were hopelessly ill prepared for this turn of events…they were Mamacita-less!!!
Murdoch’s head dropped with an air of defeat so that his stubborn chin rested on his chest. This time he could not hold the word back.
Johnny stirred on his arm, as he shook his little head and declared, “Nuh uh … Johnny peepeed.”
Harlan was just as stunned, yet he still tried to calm his son-in-law. He gave a kind squeeze to the slumped shoulders and vowed, “We’ll see them through this. Now do you want to go clean up Johnny or get started with the mess in here? I don’t think we need to leave it until the ladies that keep the house come in the morning.”
Handing Johnny to Ha, he stated, “You go clean Johnny up. I’ll clean up the floor and strip Johnny’s bed. Scott can you go with Ha and carry Johnny’s nightshirt and diaper.”
“Yes, Papa.” He replied as he dug furiously at his neck with agitated fingers.
“And stop scratching, son. You’ll make it worse, the more you scratch the more they will spread.”
“Come along, Scotty. Let’s go bathe your brother.”
Murdoch watched as Harlan calmly walked from the room, Johnny cradled in his arms, Scott trailing behind him carrying a change of nightclothes for Johnny. Sometimes it aggravated him that Harlan could maintain such a composed and peaceful façade when he felt like coming apart at the seams. Not for the first time Murdoch thanked his lucky stars that Harlan was here to be the poised and unruffled one to Murdoch’s more fiery reactionary personality. Together they struck a good balance for the boys.
With a heavy sigh, Murdoch shook off the moment of wool gathering and set about his task. He stripped all the covers from the bed, including the extra quilts that padded the mattress to save it from being soiled should Johnny had an accident. He bundled Johnny’s wet clothes in with the bedding. Rather than dirty more towels, he decided to use the pillowcases to clean up the floor where Scott was sick.
As he knelt on the floor to wipe away the throw-up, he had to fight the urge to empty his own stomach’s contents upon the floor. Once he had it wiped up he retrieved two cloths from the washstand. He wet them both and rubbed soap into one too. Murdoch ran the soapy cloth over the area that had been soiled and then took the soap back up with the damp one. Before gathering the bundle of dirty laundry, he opened the window a few inches to air the room.
Murdoch clumped wearily down the hall to the stairs that lead to the kitchen. He arrived in the kitchen and did a double take at the sight that greeted him. Scott sat at the table, resting his head on the top, his eyes heavy with sleep, cheeks flushed with fever. Johnny was sitting in the large kitchen sink still wrapped in the towel. Harlan was busy firing up the stove to heat the pot of water he had put on. Murdoch quickly stepped into the pantry where the large laundry-soaking sink was, and deposited the soiled items before coming back out into the main part of the kitchen.
“Harlan, what are you doing?”
“I thought it would be just as easy to heat water in here to bathe Johnny as it would be in the bathhouse. Not to mention both boys have fever so I didn’t want to take them outside in the cool night air to the bathhouse. We really do need to see about converting one of the extra bedrooms into one of those new water closets, especially with these two little ones.”
“I guess you’re right. I’ll look in to it.”
Steam began to rise from the pot on the stove, once the fire was lit in the big cast iron range it heated up quickly. The chill was already being chased from the room. Ha grabbed two potholders and grasped the handles of the pot and called out instructions to Murdoch.
“Take Johnny out of the sink so I can pour in this water.”
Murdoch picked Johnny up and cuddled him to his chest. He was alarmed to realize he was much hotter than he had felt upstairs. Johnny laid his head on his Papa’s shoulders and lethargically sighed, huffing a breath of overly warm air onto his neck. A testament to how poorly the child felt was the fact the little ball of energy had sat still and quiet in the sink.
Harlan tipped the pot into the sink, but left enough in the pot to add water to so it would be the right temperature to rinse. He pumped some water into the basin and kept testing it with his hand until it felt like the right warmth for bathing.
“Ahhh…just right. In you go.”
Murdoch unwrapped Johnny, as soon as the cool air hit his fevered body chill bumps appeared along with the smattering of chicken pops. He sat Johnny in the sink, and then grabbed a cup and dipped it in the water.
“Harlan could you tilt him back so I get wet his hair?”
Ha gently leaned the little body back, supporting his shoulders with his arm. Johnny remained passive and quiet until the water was poured onto his head and then he began to cry.
“Ssshush…little one, Ha has you. We’ll be done in minute.”
Johnny continued to sob as Papa and Ha worked together to soap and rinse him. Shrieking the loudest as they cleaned his hair.
“Papa, make Johnny hush, my head hurts.” Scott held his hands over his ears, rubbing and pressing them. His face had gone pale, and even in the meek radiance of the one lamp they had lit they could see more spots appearing around his face.
When the last of the soap was rinsed from Johnny’s hair, Murdoch reached and pulled the plug from the sink. The water made a funny glub glub and sucking sound as it started down the drain. Curious as he watched the water swirl around the open pipe, Johnny stuck his hand over it. The suction grabbed his hand and pulled it downward against the opening, startled, Johnny tugged until he was released, a loud pop signaling his freedom.
In his mind, Johnny thought he could slide down that hole like the water. He screamed and scrambled madly back with a look of wild terror in his eyes. He cracked his head on the water pump when he butted up against the side of the sink. Ha was reaching to pick the terrified child up when Johnny grabbed hold of his robe and clambered up until he could wrap his arms tightly around his neck.
“It’s all right, we’re all done.”
Ha patted the tiny back as Murdoch worked around him drying the little boy off. Johnny continued to snub and cry, looking untrustingly at the kitchen sink. Scott sat at the table and joined in his brother’s cacophony of sounds that demonstrated his misery and sadness.
Murdoch tugged Johnny’s arms loose from Ha’s neck and sat down at the table with him. With his long legs he could sit and lay Johnny length-wise on his lap so he could pin Johnny’s night- time diaper on him.
Johnny wiggled and squirmed. He didn’t want the diaper back on, it made his hinny hurt. He displayed his aversion in sobs and wails. “No, Papa, Johnny not want diaper, it makes Johnny’s hinny hurt.”
“Johnny, stop. The diaper didn’t make your hinny hurt, the chicken pox did. Your hinny will itch even if you’re wearing your big boy pants. Now be still!” He finished pinning the diaper on.
Not liking Papa’s response Johnny squealed and kicked his feet. His little heels connected with a very sensitive spot on Papa. Murdoch gasped in pain and dropped forward just in time to pin Johnny’s legs in between his legs and chest so that he didn’t scoot off his lap into the floor.
Scott stopped crying and watched the action between his Papa and little brother. He was pretty sure Papa was mad because his face was a really red color and he had his eyes squeezed shut. He thought maybe Papa was too mad to even count because even his lips were clamped together so tight you couldn’t really see them.
Johnny dangled half-off Papa’s lap, viewing the world upside down. He saw the lower half of Ha’s robe and legs coming towards him and reached with his arms requesting, “Help, Ha!”
Harlan pulled Johnny from Murdoch’s lap, wincing in sympathy as his son-in-law tried to ride out the pain of the kick. He stood Johnny on the table and slipped the clean nightshirt over his head. Just as he finished, the Grandfather clock chimed out the time of three o’clock.
“There now doesn’t that feel better to be all cleaned up and dry?”
Johnny yawned and then began to cry. “Johnny firsty.”
Murdoch stood, having recovered somewhat, though his voice did sound a little higher than normal when he spoke. “I’ll get you boys some juice, because I really don’t feel like wiping up anymore milk tonight.
He moved to the icebox and took out the pitcher of apple juice. He poured it into the little metal cups they kept for the boys. Murdoch went back to the table and sighed at the misery exhibited by his sons. Scott had one hand scratching at his neck and the other digging in his hairline. Johnny was resting against Harlan’s chest, sucking his thumb, pushing and pulling at his diaper through his nightshirt.
“Here you go boys, this apple juice will feel good going down. I’ll send for Doc Jenkins in the morning to confirm what Ha and I think, we think you have chicken pox. Hopefully Doc will be able to tell us how to control your itching.”
Scott grabbed his cup and guzzled the cool liquid. He banged the cup down on the table irritably and growled huskily from his sore throat. “This is all Teresa Stacy’s fault, she made me get chicken pox. She didn’t come to school all week cause her brother said she had chicken pox.”
As Scott complained Ha tried to help Johnny drink his juice. The little one was tired and cranky and was not doing a good job of getting the juice into his mouth, yet he resisted all offers of help.
“Johnny, let Ha help you, you’re going spill that all over yourself.”
No sooner were the words spoken, then the cup of juice went flying over Ha’s shoulder as Johnny tried to wrestle the cup back into his possession. Johnny immediately started to squall and Papa began to count, as he cleaned up the spill.
Scott was just plain tired of this; he wished Mamacita were here. She always knew how to deal with his little brother. Scott decided Papa and Ha needed some advice so he spoke up, “Sometimes when Mamacita doesn’t want him to make a mess she puts his drink in the baby bottle.”
Ha thought that was the perfect solution. “Did Maria keep the bottles?”
Murdoch was already up searching the cabinets, when Scott pointed to a shelf that was lined with pots. “She keeps them in that pot, the one she uses to boil them.”
Taking the pot down, he could hear the bottles rattling together. Murdoch sighed in relief when he took the lid off and saw the bottles were ready for use, clean and with the nipples in place. He quickly opened one and filled it. He wondered if Johnny would actually drink form it in front of them or if he would kick up a fuss about being a big boy.
Murdoch got the answer to his question when he got close enough that Johnny reached out and snatched the bottle. He popped it in his mouth and began to suck so hard the nipple made a continuous squeezing sound from the pressure. Apparently, being a big boy did not extend to refusing a bottle. The bottle was already half empty and Johnny’s eyes were growing heavy with sleep, his body slowly relaxed into loose limbed repose.
“I think it’s time we go back to bed for the last couple hours of sleep, I have a feeling we’re going to need it. Let me take Johnny, Harlan. He can sleep with me, I opened the window in his room to air it, not to mention I can monitor his temperature better”
“Can I sleep with you, Ha?” Begged Scott.
“Yes, you may. I want to monitor you for fever, too.” Replied Ha as he handed Johnny off to Murdoch.
The weary family trudged up the stairs. Ha disappeared into his room with Scott in tow. Murdoch entered his room, striding to the rocker, he sat down and began to rock and hum while Johnny finished the bottle of apple juice.
He had intended to go to bed as soon as Johnny dropped off to sleep but the next thing he knew he was squinting and turning his head trying to avoid a stream of sunlight beaming through the crack in the curtains. Murdoch groaned as he shook of the confusion of awaking in the chair instead of his bed.
Johnny was snuggled up against his chest; drool covering his chin and a dry crusty residue under his nose. The little one was still sound asleep. Murdoch reached and opened the curtain more to get a better view of his son. The bright morning light revealed a smattering of red dots on Johnny’s face. Brushing back his baby’s hair with his large hand, Murdoch could feel the fever was higher than it had been last night. He sighed in heavy frustration, it would have been nice to awaken this morning and find it had all been a bad dream, but the cold light of day snatched that wish away.
He decided he would lay Johnny in the bed and let him sleep as long as he would. Murdoch carefully stood up; he grimaced and froze when the bottle fell to the floor with a loud clink, but thankfully it didn’t wake the baby. He laid Johnny in the bed and covered him, pausing to drop a light kiss on the fevered brow before he went about his morning routine.
Making his way down the hall to the kitchen, the smell of coffee greeted Murdoch and the scent was strong enough to energize his steps, speeding him along in anticipation of a cup of the brew. He was so busy ordering his thoughts on what he needed to do today, first and foremost being to send one of the hands for the doctor, until he was startled to find himself standing in the kitchen.
Harlan and Scott were sitting at the table as Lupe bustled about finishing breakfast. Poor Scott looked worse than Johnny, this morning. His face, neck and hands were covered in the red dotted blisters of chicken pox. He looked like he was going to have a rip roaring case of them.
“Oh, Senor Lancer, I did not know you were there, sit down and I will get you some coffee.” The woman nervously hurried to pour the Patron a cup of coffee, in her haste she over poured and puddled it on the table.
Scott had understandably awakened cranky and out of sorts and Mamacita being away didn’t help matters. He watched as Lupe spilled the hot liquid on the table and commented out loud. “She makes a bigger mess than Johnny and he’s just a baby.”
“Scott Garrett Lancer, you owe Lupe an apology. I know you don’t feel well but that is no excuse to be rude to your elders.” Ha sternly reprimanded.
Tears trickled down Scott’s face as he glanced quickly at Papa and saw he was frowning his disapproval too. “I’m sorry Lupe, please forgive me for being rude.”
Murdoch nodded and winked at Scott, letting him know he did well, as he picked up his cup for the first sip of brew. Lupe’s cooking skills were sadly lacking, but she made wonderful coffee, however it was too hot to even sip right now.
“I think while my drink cools off, I’ll go assign duties for the day and send Frank into town to get the doctor.” Murdoch stood, taking a biscuit as he went and headed out the door. Outside he bit into the biscuit as he walked towards the bunkhouse, he gagged and spit furiously.
Today’s bread was worse than yesterday’s, he was actually able to bite through it but it crumbled into gritty, salty residue in his mouth. He started to dig a hole in the dirt with his boot heel to get rid of it, when he spied the Lancer collie Patty Pat and threw it to her instead. The herding dog took one sniff of the lump of baked flour and promptly dug a hole and buried it. Murdoch laughed at the betrayed look the dog gave him before running off at the sound of her food bowl being filled.
The small boy looked even tinier in his Papa’s over sized bed. No longer than he had been laying there he still had the covers rumpled and tossed about in disarray, because he was never completely still, not even in sleep. At the moment he was squirming, at the full sensation of his bladder. He struggled to wake up, he sat up scratching at his head, he yawned widely and then his eyes widened in realization, if he didn’t get his diaper off and potty soon he was going to wet it.
Johnny scrambled off the side of the bed, pulling the covers with him as he used them like a rope to lower himself to the floor. As soon as his feet hit the floor, he pulled up his nightshirt and shimmed out of his diaper. He fidgeted and danced about as the urge to go consumed him. He dropped to the floor and looked under the bed for Papa’s chamber pot, but he couldn’t see it under the dark bed. He squeezed his legs together and whimpered, he didn’t think he could make it downstairs and outside.
He looked desperately around; he squinted at the light streaming in the window. That’s when he figured it out, the window opened to a balcony; that was outside! Johnny rushed to the large ceiling to floor opening and jumped for the long handled latch and pulled it down, the window swung opened and he hurried out. Johnny yanked his nightshirt up and aimed in between two rails and relieved himself.
Johnny didn’t see the urine puddle on the resting bench just below. He also lost his grip on his sleep shirt before he finished and managed to wet the front of it when it dropped down, so he pulled it off and hung it on the rail. Johnny was so busy scratching at the new pox that had appeared as he slept until he didn’t see the wind lift the tiny white shirt and carry it away, floating it through the air like a tiny headless ghost, but Lupe saw it as it sailed by the kitchen window, causing her to recite a silent prayer for the restless spirit and cross herself.
The naked little Lancer was walking to Papa’s dresser to get some clothes when he saw his bottle on the floor. He stopped to pick it up; he couldn’t believe Papa let him have it last night. He loved the bottle as much as his thumb but he didn’t get it very often cause he was supposed to be a big boy. Mamacita only let him have it when she didn’t want him to spill. Thinking of Mamacita reminded him of her apron, he looked around frantically for it and then remembered it was probably in his room.
Johnny streaked down the hall, racing into the nursery he was dismayed to see the bed had been stripped. He was just about to fly into a conniption fit when he saw it hanging on the bedpost. He was thrilled it wasn’t with the wet sheets, now he was glad Papa made him hang it there last night instead of letting him wear it to bed.
Climbing onto the bed with his bottle clutched in one hand proved difficult but he managed. Once he was on the mattress he stood up and lifted the apron from the post. The apron’s strings were still tied so he slipped it over his head. He lifted the corner of his apron/cape and pressed it to his nose breathing in the scents of Mamacita. His face itched so he scrubbed the soft cotton material against his face.
Johnny was still standing on the bed so when he finished scratching his face with the apron and let it drop; he got a good look at himself in the mirror on the dresser. His little mouth fell open, he had some kind of red things on his face, he raised a hand and poked at them. So this was what was itching him. Then he got a good look at his hand . . . it had red spots too! He was starting to get worried . . . he looked down and saw those dots on his chest . . . his eyes traveled further . . . to his horror he had one on his peepee too!
It took a couple of seconds for it all to sink in, and then he screamed like a kerosene cat on fire. He jumped from the bed, bottle in hand, apron/cape floating up from the rapid descend and ran screaming out of his bedroom. Johnny dashed down the hall, apron/cape fluttering behind him as though it was hanging on the line in a stiff breeze; he arrived in the kitchen still squealing.
Lupe dropped the platter of bacon she was so startled by the dramatic entrance, Ha and Scott were up from the table and halfway across the room, and Papa was barreling in the door having heard the shrieking from outside.
The whole group froze . . . for the span of a minute no one said a thing or moved any closer. Johnny remained at the staircase landing jumping up and down hollering, bottle clutched in his hand. He made quite a sight. He was clothed in just an apron that was tied around his neck, with every agitated jump the material would flap up over his head as though waving, and then quiver and fall against his back, as his heels connected back with the floor. The only other covering on his body were the red spots.
It started with Scott, he tried so hard not to laugh, he bit his own knuckles, but it didn’t help, the giggles rolled out of his mouth. Ha chuckled making a noise that sounded like he was calling himself over and over, Ha Ha Ha. Papa threw his head back and roared like a lion with ticklish feet.
Lupe slipped on the greasy bacon scattered about the floor as she ran for the door to get away from these crazy people. Patty Pat snuck in as she made her get away, quite pleased to find bacon for the taking on the floor.
And that’s the scene Doctor Sam Jenkins walked in on. He had decided to stop by to check on the boys since they had been in his office the same day Teresa Stacy had been in with chicken pox; that had now swept through over half the children in the school.
Sam Jenkins sat at the Lancer kitchen table, chewing his bottom lip trying his best not to break out into gales of laughter, again. His sides still throbbed from the earlier episode of uncontrollable hilarity; his cheeks ached from the amused smile that refused to abandon his face. He tried to keep his eyes on his coffee cup, he knew if he chanced looking up at Lupe, he would fall once again into an abyss of mirth, and if he did it might just push the traumatized woman over the edge of sanity.
Sam kept catching glimpses of Lupe, as she moved around the kitchen preparing a second breakfast. The first one she had tried to cook had either been dropped in the floor or burned as it was left on the stove when she made her frightened flight from the house. The only food not dropped or burned had been the biscuits. For some strange reason, the Lancer collie, Patty Pat had jumped on the table, growled and barked at the biscuits and then snatched the bread basket’s edge with her teeth and ran off with it.
Patty Pat’s peculiar behavior diverted Johnny’s attention from his fit. When she jumped from the table and raced out the door, Johnny skirted around the others, as they had turned their backs to him when they whirled around to see what the dog was barking at.
Out the door flew the Lancer clan, first Johnny, with his little naked behind, covered in red spots, his apron/cape fluttering in the breeze of his rapid movement, Scott in his nightshirt and white socked feet, Ha with his robe flapping in the wind, making him resemble an awkward bird trying to achieve flight, and then Papa stumbling, as he tried not to run over the other’s with his long legged stride. And if that wasn’t a strange enough sight, the event occurring outside was so incredulous, it could have made a stone statue’s face crack into a smile.
Lupe was running, her arms flailing wildly about her head as she made her blind dash in a state of obvious panic across the small herb garden before changing directions and fleeing across the patio. One might get the impression she was in the fight of her life with a swarm of angry bees; except she was actually being pursued by a little white nightshirt that was being tossed and sailed along in the gusty wind. It had been stuck in the bare branches of the peach tree until just before she ran out the door, at that time the wind set it free to fly. She was shrieking and pleading for the tiny spirit to let her be.
The Lancer hands still in the yard stared in gapped mouth perplexity as the wild parade zigged-zagged, winding it way around the large hacienda, slowly losing participants.
Patty Pat chased her, biscuits bouncing from the basket clutched in her teeth. When the last one bounced out she stopped, and began to dig furiously in the dirt. Johnny ran until he reached the dog and then he stopped to see what she was doing. He noticed worms wiggling in the dirt Patty’s paw had turned over. He became instantly engrossed in the night crawlers and dropped to the wet earth to investigate.
Scott kept running and made the direction change with Lupe. His once white socks as black as the damp ground he ran on. When he came to the stone paved patio, he was winded and coughing and the rough surface hurt his feet, so he stopped and straddled the resting bench like he would a horse. He grimaced in disgust when he felt something wet on the bench wick through his nightshirt and drawers.
Ha raced on until he got to Johnny. He slid to a halt, huffing and puffing to catch his breath. “Johnny, you can’t be out in this cool air with a fever and certainly not without clothes.” Ha reached down and picked Johnny up, pressed him to his chest and wrapped his robe around him, he then turned and headed back to the house.
Murdoch continued to trail the frantically fleeing Lupe. She bobbed and weaved her way steadily away from the house. Her screams echoing across the fields every time she looked up and saw that little headless spirit still in pursuit of her. The tall rancher finally caught up to her and the errant garment; with a running jump he was able to snatch the piece of clothes from the air.
“LUPE! STOP!” He bellowed with the last of his breath. He grabbed her elbow and spun her around. “You were not being chased by a ghost, it’s Johnny’s nightshirt. Now would you please come back to the house?”
Doc Jenkins stood by the open kitchen door roaring with laughter. He found the antics of the family more entertaining than a troop of drunken circus performers. He stood guard by the door as the family straggled back into the house. First came Ha, with a squirming Johnny wrapped up in the front of his robe. Clutched in between Johnny’s fingers was a handful of mud, wiggling with worms. Scott walked dejectedly behind them, flapping his nightshirt with a conspicuous wet yellow stain at the front. Murdoch escorted Lupe, holding her elbow to help support the trembling woman.
“I don’t want to hear a word, Sam.”
“I didn’t say a thing, Murdoch.”
“No, but by God you were thinking it.”
“Now Murdoch, don’t be so touchy. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“Well, Sam it is your misfortunate to find me missing my humor as much as I am missing Mamacita’s help. Now, please make yourself at home while I help get the boys cleaned up, Harlan dresses and Lupe starts breakfast again.”
The family headed upstairs. Johnny leaving a trail of dirt globs and worms, Scott proclaiming he had no idea why his nightshirt was wet with peepee, protesting his innocence despite the evidence. Ha singing a nonsense song about worms to Johnny. The last audible sound floating down the staircase was Murdoch’s harried voice.
“If the next two weeks don’t kill me, they will most likely rob me of my sanity. But, hell, why should I care, I’ll either be dead or too crazy to be bothered by it.”
Sam snickered, evilly to himself, as he accepted the cup of coffee from Lupe and settled down at the table to wait on the Lancers return, entertaining himself by observing Lupe. He was drawn from his reflections on the morning by the sounds of boots clumping on wooden steps.
Murdoch reappeared in the kitchen with Johnny riding his hip and Scott by his side scowling.
“Papa, I don’t know how he did it, but I’m sure Johnny is the one that got peepee on my nightshirt.”
“Nuh huh, Squat. Johnny went outside Papa’s window to pee.”
“You what? Johnny how many times do I have to tell you to use the chamber pot or the outhouse?”
“But Papa, Johnny couldn’t see your pot unner the bed and Johnny couldn’t go outside cause Johnny had to go bad.”
Murdoch sat Johnny in his highchair, leaving the tray off and pushed him up to the table. Rolling his eyes, he mumbled. “God help me but it’s all beginning to make sense now, and that’s a really scary thought!”
“My clothes got wet when I sat on the bench under your window, Papa.”
“Why Squat not go to the outhouse? Squat outside.”
“It’s alright, Scott. I believe you, craziness seems to be your brother’s companion.”
“Who Crazy Ness, that Loch Ness brother?” Questioned Johnny, thinking about the story of the Loch Ness monster Ha had told him.
Sam and Murdoch winced when Scott’s little blond head thumped down on the table with an exaggerated sigh.
Doc Jenkins’s experienced eye studied both boys’ faces; of course first he had to lift Scott’s from the table. He didn’t have that problem with Johnny; Johnny studied him, right back, with inquisitive eyes.
“Well, I see you boys are the latest victims of the chicken pox epidemic to hit town. So many students are sick they have canceled school for the week. Anybody exposed to Teresa Stacy, has them.”
Sam quickly checked the postulates on the boys. He listened to their chest and checked their eyes, ears and throat.
“There’s not much to do for them Murdoch. Chicken pox just has to run their course. Give them willow bark tea for fever and pain. Cool baths will help with the itching, you can add oatmeal flakes to the water, it aids with the itch too. Make sure they drink plenty of juice. And most importantly don’t scratch the sores, they can become infected and leave scars. Their appetites may be off because they do get the pox in their mouths too. I assume you already know they will most likely be cranky. Make them rest, because it can go into respiratory illness.”
Lupe cautiously approached the table; as though she didn’t trust the family not to suddenly attack her, she placed one of three breakfast platters down. There was one of gray rubbery looking scrambled eggs, another platter of limp looking bacon, swimming in a puddle of grease and the third one with borderline burned/well done biscuits. She scooted away backwards mumbling something about needing to feed the chickens and that she would be back to clean up. She hurried out the door, glancing over her shoulder as though alert for danger.
Ha descended the stairs in time to see the wary cook’s skirt swishing swiftly about her rapidly departing legs. He chuckled as he made his way to the table and sat down. His mirth quickly faded when he saw the less than appetizing food displayed on the table.
“It is beyond me how Lupe has no problem cooking a perfectly fine meal as long as Maria is in attendance, but fail so spectacularly when she is absent. For heaven sake Maria left her the recipes and even made up a menu for her to follow.” Ha grimaced as he passed on all the food and settled for just coffee.
“What’s a rest pea,” piped up Johnny as he played with his eggs, striking them with the spoon and making them bounce on the plate. He wisely put the utensil down when a bit of the eggs jumped from the strike, rebounded off the plate and flew into Papa’s cup with an almost silent plop.
“Recipe,” corrected Papa. “It’s the instructions or directions for how to cook food. Maria was quite explicit in her directions; she made them so straight forward even the most basic reader should be able to follow them. I’m sure Scott could understand them and do a better job than Lupe has, and he’s only eight.”
“I’m about ready to let Scott try. He certainly couldn’t do any worse,” grumbled Murdoch, as he unintentionally swallowed a lump with his mouth full of coffee.
“I think perhaps she is intimidated by you, Murdoch. She always lets Maria do the speaking and interacting with the family. I’m sure Maria would not have left her in charge of feeding her ninos, if she had realized she would have trouble with the cooking chore.”
“Do we have to eat this to get our Maria cookies?” Whined Scott as he wrapped a piece of the limp bacon around his burnt biscuit. He tried stabbing it with his fork and bent one of the tines.
“Yea . . . Johnny want cookies, this food is nasty. Johnny hungry.” Tears followed the statement.
“Boys, one cookie each is not enough for breakfast.” Murdoch got up and walked into the pantry, he came back with a jar of preserved peaches. “You can eat some of these peaches with your milk and then have your cookie.”
While Murdoch prepared a helping of the fruit for the boys, taking the time to cut them into bite sized pieces, Harlan explained to Doc Jenkins about the large jar of cookies on the counter. Sam thought a cookie countdown was an imaginative way to help the children track the days until Maria’s return.
Scott ate his peaches like he was famished. He speared the bite-sized bits and would suck the syrupy residue from the fruit and then pull it off the fork with his teeth and chew it. He alternated between the peaches and taking sips of his milk.
Johnny picked at his peaches, pushing the fruit around the bowl with his spoon. The few times he did place any in his mouth, he mashed it with his tongue until the slippery food would shoot back out his mouth, to land with splat amongst the serving.
“I’m finished, Papa, can I have my cookie now?” Scott wiped his mouth with his napkin.
“Johnny want cookie too.”
Murdoch walked to the counter and retrieved one cookie. He brought it back to Scott and told Johnny, “You need to eat your fruit, first.”
Johnny began one of his deluxe temper tantrums. He kicked and screamed, finally throwing his spoon and pushing the bowl off the table. Murdoch caught the wildly thrashing hand and popped it.
“Little man that will be enough! I know you don’t feel well, but you will not throw things or push dishes from the table.”
Harlan’s jaw clenched, as he pressed his lips together, pursing them tightly in aggravation. He and his son-in-law basically saw eye to eye on the raising of the boys except for one thing…Ha was lenient and tended to be even more so with Johnny because he was the baby.
Doc spoke up, sensing the rising tension. “Murdoch, his appetite is going to be off while he has the fever as the sores break out. And possibly after, too: if he gets them in his mouth. The important thing is to make sure they don’t become dehydrated. You need to have them drink plenty of water, juice or milk.”
“Johnny do you want juice or milk?” Asked Ha while Murdoch cleaned the peaches off the floor.
Ha moved to the icebox and grabbed the apple juice. He moved to the cabinet to get a cup, on the counter under the cupboard was the cookie jar so he also grabbed a cookie for Johnny. He came back to the table and handed Johnny the treat and poured his drink.
Johnny studied the cookie, a sugar one, he loved those, but he didn’t really feel hungry. He bit the cookie and it felt scratchy in his mouth, so he stuffed the cookie down his shirt collar to save it for later. He picked up the cup, and because his throat hurt he tried to gulp the juice quickly. Johnny got strangled and began to cough; he dropped the cup, spilling its contents on the table and began to screech.
Scott slapped his hands over his ears, rolling his eyes, “Can’t you just give it to him in the bottle so he’ll hush?”
That statement got Johnny’s attention and he calmed his latest fit. The little scamp saw the perfect opportunity to get just what he wanted, oh how he loved his bottle, almost as much as his thumb. He sniffed pitifully, as large tears dripped down his face. “Johnny firsty.”
Murdoch turned to Doc for his advice. “Sam, do you think it’s all right for him to still be sucking from a bottle.”
“It can’t hurt him. Some children nurse up until age five. It’s extra nutrition. Some women nurse as long as they can to stretch the food further. Johnny already eats a good diet from table food. He doesn’t refuse to eat in preference for the bottle does he?”
“No, he eats basically everything he’s offered. Maria even fixes him spicy food. Scott told me last night Maria gives him the bottle when she doesn’t want him to make a mess, so we let him have one.”
“I imagine it feels better to have whatever he’s drinking trickle down his throat instead of having to gulp or swallow.”
Ha had already made his decision, by the time Sam and Murdoch finished discussing the merits of allowing Johnny the bottle, he had prepared one.
Johnny giggled as he took the bottle and popped it in his mouth. He threw his head back and enjoyed the soothing sensation of the juice sliding down his throat. He squirmed around in his high chair until he could get his tiny hand pushed into shirt and scratched at his chest were his crumbled cookie made his spots itch.
Sam shook his head and snickered at the rascal. “I need to be on my way gentlemen. I have a lot more children to check on. Just follow the instructions I gave you earlier. If their fever goes up and stays up, or they get really congested, send for me.”
Murdoch walked out with Sam and watched him drive away; he had to fight an irrational sense of abandonment as the doctor disappeared from sight. Walking back into the kitchen, he passed the jar of cookies and was seized by a wild desire to consume the contents in a mad feeding frenzy, as if emptying the container would immediately bring Maria back.
Sinking into his chair and refilling his coffee cup, Murdoch studied his family. Harlan Garrett, East Coast Millionaire was calmly cleaning up the spilled juice from the table. Scott was playing with the biscuits, pretending they were boulders, and the limp bacon became snakes that he maneuvered to slither over around the rocks, leaving a greasy, shiny trail. Johnny was the picture of contentment as he sucked his bottle and worked his hand in and out of his shirt retrieving cookie crumbs that he sprinkled over Scott’s bacon snakes, which prompted the older boy to imagine his reptiles were caught in a sandstorm.
The full cookie jar on the counter seemed to mock Murdoch’s misapprehension and self-doubt. He swallowed his misgivings along with the last of his coffee, after all, he thought, just how bad could get it?
Murdoch rubbed his hands tiredly up and down his weary face. He didn’t have enough vigor to even set the rocking chair he was sitting in, into motion. H e didn’t think he could summons the strength to even stand and walk down the hall to his bed. For that matter, he wondered, why bother in two hours it would be dawn. His thoughts from yesterday morning still haunted him, taunted him…teased and ridiculed him for his totally asinine thoughts about just how bad could it get. Well he dang sure found out.
His two rambunctious, independent children had morphed into the worst type of clinging leeches. He was convinced they had secretly set up a time schedule for crying, so that it was an around the clock never-ending endeavor. Both boys’ fevers had spiked before noon, resulting in a major break out of the chicken pox sores.
Just thinking back on the day sapped his energy, made it hard to even hold his head up. He let his head thump back, with a muffled thud, to strike the top of the rocking chair as the day’s events washed over him, drowning him once again in frustration at the feeling of powerlessness.
Truth be told, Johnny’s behavior had not really surprised him. His youngest has always been somewhat of an attention hog, and while he had a forceful and magnificent temper for one so young, he was for the most part a happy go-lucky child.
The thing that had shocked Murdoch to the core was his older son. Scott had always been compassionate and even-tempered, really quite diplomatic for his age. Not only had Scott broken out in a plethora of blisters, but the green-eyed monster had apparently bitten him too. He had actively vied for attention, all day he had acted like he was in a contest or struggle with Johnny. It got to the point where the little blond had tried to pull Johnny out of his Papa’s arms, and when Johnny had willingly gone to Ha, Scott changed his mind and wanted his grandfather.
Both men had felt stretched to the limit, pulled one way and then another all day as the little boys succumbed to the aches, fever and itching. They had tried to be understanding but Ha had finally had to resort to corporal punishment when Scott retaliated against his little brother for a perceived slight and ended up bruising his temple.
Scott had been building a castle with his collection of wooden blocks. Johnny was riding his rocking horse. The boys had been separated because they were having trouble dealing with each other and the itching. Just as Scott finished his architectural masterpiece Johnny sneezed, startling his brother, causing him to jerk and knock over a large portion of the building.
Scott had been incensed with his baby brother claiming he had sneezed on purpose, which of course Johnny denied; this further angered the blond. Scott snatched up one of his bigger blocks and threw it at Johnny as he rocked. The chunk of wood struck Johnny in the mouth. Out of reflex he let go of the handles of his horse and covered his mouth. The fast action caused him to lose his balance and he tumbled from the saddle, striking his head on the corner of Papa’s desk.
Ha rushed to pick Johnny up and comfort him. This had sent Scott into a fit. He cried and carried on that no one cared about him, no one cared that Johnny had ruined his creation. No matter what Ha said, trying to explain Johnny could not have been the culprit because he was all the way across the room, Scott would not be pacified. When Scott forcefully pushed Johnny into the corner in an attempt to correct him, Ha had swatted Scott on the bottom.
The rest of the afternoon went downhill from there. Both boys had refused lunch upon learning Lupe had cooked it. Scott had begged for more peaches and Johnny drank two bottles of juice. The soup wasn’t the best Murdoch had ever tasted but it was edible.
Shortly after lunch, it was decided they would have the children soak in the tub. The two kids had scratched and squirmed in discomfort all through the meal. Neither boy met the news with enthusiasm. In fact the ruckus kicked up about it quickly reached Biblical proportions with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Getting Johnny into the tub proved to be about as easy a task as baptizing a cat. He had wanted to bathe in the sink again. They had compromised by bringing one of the wooden tubs into the kitchen, figuring it would be best to leave it there for the duration of the illness rather than dragging the boys out in the cool air.
The evening hours had been just as draining. With the onslaught of the higher fevers and the breakout of even more blisters they had finally resorted to putting socks over the boys hands to remind them not to scratch. The body aches from the fever left both boys lethargic to the point all they wanted was to be held.
Ha had entertained them with stories, fairy and Biblical tales, until he was sure he would lose his voice. Just after dark the boys had requested more juice and a final story; they were ready for bed.
That last story caused a reaction that was the nearest thing to normal that had occurred all day. Scott was cuddled next to his Papa’s chest; Johnny sat in Ha’s lap sucking his bottle as he related one of the stories from the Bible. It was about the time the Lord told Lot to take his wife and flee, to leave the city and not look back. Ha told how Lot’s wife had turned and looked back; and then was turned into a pillar of salt.
Sitting in the dark recalling the day’s event, tired beyond belief, Johnny response still caused a weary smile to crease his languid face and an indolent snicker to rumble slowly in his belly, as he recalled the exchange over the story.
Johnny had pulled his bottle from his mouth and seriously studied Ha’s face, which prompted Ha to confirm this was a true story from the Bible, not a fairy tale.
“What happened to the flea, Ha?”
“What flea, Johnny?”
“The flea that left the city with Lot and his wife. Did he find a dog to ride on?”
Murdoch’s last conscious thoughts before he began to softly snore, was that he really should at least stretch out on the bed here in the nursery, since he had put Johnny in the crib.
Papa’s snore woke Johnny, at first he thought a bear might be in his room, and then he realized it was Papa making that funny noise he made when he was sleeping. Then he heard another growling noise, right there in his crib with him. Johnny sat up and was just about to sound the alarm about wild animals in the house when it dawned on him it was his own empty belly making the noise.
Johnny glanced over at Papa, sitting in the rocker, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his head thrown back. H e spied his bottle on the table next to the chair, but he didn’t want that, he was hungry, and ready for some food. What he really wanted was a biscuit with honey on it.
Now he needed to find a way to get out of this bed, without waking Papa. He took the socks off his hands that Ha had put on them to keep him from scratching. As soon as they were off he dug furiously at his sweat soaked scalp. He could feel the chicken pox bumps in his hair; they felt tight and round like it did when Patty Pat got a tick in her fur. He squirmed out of his sweat damp nightshirt, sighing in relief when the cool air hit his warm moist skin.
Johnny wanted to take off his nighttime diaper, but he thought about the trouble he would be in if he did. Papa had his ‘ready to spank you’ face on when he told him if he caught him taking it off again, there would be ‘seeing us’ ‘con sea benches’. Johnny was pretty sure that was a ‘growed’ up people word for tear his hind end up so he left it on, along with his socks.
The agile little boy grabbed the spindles of his crib’s side rails. He grunted and pulled himself up until he could grasp the top horizontal slat and then swung his leg over. He strained to hold himself up as he balanced on the top rail until he worked his other leg over. Once he dropped to the other side, he began to lower his body to the floor by gripping the spindles again, in a hand over hand maneuver. As soon as his toes touched the floor he let go, he reached back through the side of the crib and grabbed his apron/cape.
Johnny was putting on the cape when Papa snorted and shifted in the chair; it scared him so bad he almost wet himself. He scooted out of the room headed to the outhouse when he remembered he wasn’t allowed to go outside by himself and he wasn’t suppose to take his diaper off, so he detoured to Squat’s room.
Scott was laying in bed, blinking in confusion; he thought he heard noises like thumps and bumps. He wondered where the sounds were coming from. His eyes grew large and round in concern. //Maybe there was a monster under his bed.// He rolled to the side and slithered off the mattress, just his behind and legs still on the bed. Scott braced his head on the floor and cautiously moved the bed skirt to look in the deep, dark cavernous space under the bed. The next thing he knew something was patting his back. He sucked in his breath so hard he couldn’t even manage a scream. He toppled over and landed in a heap at his little brother’s feet.
Johnny toddled into Squat’s room and was surprise to see his brother standing on his head and looking under the bed. He tiptoed across the room and tapped his brother on the back. He scuttled backwards just in time as Squat lost his balance and tumbled over.
“What you doing, Squat?”
“John …ney,” hissed Scott, “You almost scared me to death! What are you doing up?”
“Johnny need to peepee.”
“Why didn’t you tell Papa?”
“Papa sleeping, Johnny need go now!”
Sighing in exasperation Scott, untangled his limbs and pulled himself up on his knees, he reached under the bed and drug the chamber pot out. He helped Johnny shimmy the diaper down, as Johnny squirmed and implored him to hurry. By the time Scott had the diaper pushed to his knees, Johnny grabbed himself and began to dance, hopping from one foot to another, until the diaper slipped down his legs and dropped to the floor. Scott guided him to the pot and lifted the lid.
“Sit down on it, Johnny. Your aim isn’t very good. I don’t want you peeing all over my floor.”
If he didn’t have to go so bad Johnny would have argued with Squat, instead he settled for scowling at him. He plopped down on the opening just in time. He was so relieved to be emptying his bladder; he shook and wobbled as he sat. When he was finished he stood up and Scott helped him step into the diaper and pull it back up. Neither boy wanted to be in trouble with Papa about it, as he had told Johnny he was to wear it until he or Ha took it off in the morning.
“Where is your nightshirt, Johnny?”
“Johnny take it off, it made Johnny’s chicken pops itch. Johnny hungry.”
“I’m hungry too. Lets go find something to eat, but first you need to put some clothes on.”
“Johnny have clothes on,” he replied in a confused voice. He thought what more did he need to wear, he had on socks, his hinny was covered and he was wearing his cape.
Scott rolled his eyes as he began to look through his clothes for something to put on Johnny. He finally settled on his white Sunday shirt. It was big on Johnny’s tiny frame, fitting him like a nightshirt. As Scott struggled to button the shirt his little brother wiggled and danced. The little blond giggled when he heard Johnny’s stomach grumble.
“Johnny want biscuits and honey.”
“The only biscuits we have are the ones Lupe made. I don’t think you want those, Papa said I could follow a recipe better than she did and make them.” Scott fastened the last button and then pulled Johnny’s cape back into place.
“Johnny want Squat do it.”
“You want me to do what?”
“Squat say, Papa say, you could.”
Johnny turned his pleading blue eyes on his big brother. Scott’s blond head was cocked at an angle as he studied on what Johnny said. It was true Papa did say he could read and follow the recipe better than Lupe. Oh boy, wouldn’t Papa be surprised to get up and find breakfast made. Oh no, but he wasn’t suppose to light a fire . . . wait he wouldn’t have to, he wasn’t cooking on top the stove, the biscuits went in the oven. Johnny’s growling tummy settled the issue.
“Come on Johnny, let’s go find those recipes. We’re going to make Papa and Ha breakfast.” Scott was giddy with excitement over his planned surprise…not realizing he was the one in for a surprise, just because you can’t see a fire in the oven doesn’t mean the firebox of the stove didn’t have to be lit for it to work.
The two little Lancers tiptoed down the hall, Johnny tripping every other step on the tail of Scott’s shirt. They reached the staircase and Johnny stumbled again and almost went into a headfirst tumble down the steep steps. Scott managed to grab the tail of the shirt and pull him back just in time.
“Wait, Johnny. We need to find a way for you to get down the stairs without breaking your neck because you got your feet caught in the shirt.”
“Johnny slide.” He stated as he began to clamber up the banister. Scott helped his little brother up and as he started the rapid descend to the kitchen, the little blond shrugged, climbed the banister and joined him.
Johnny shot off the end of the handrail and landed with a thud on the hard floor, but the thick padding on his behind cushioned the blow. However before he could get up Scott careened off the end and landed on top of him.
“OUCH! Get up Squat, you squooshed Johnny.”
“Shhhh…..You don’t want to wake Papa and Ha before we finish their surprise.”
There was no need to worry about that; the two exhausted men upstairs were oblivious to the goings on downstairs. The thick noise muffling walls of the hacienda could be a blessing or a curse, depending on the circumstances.
Lighting the lamp sitting in the middle of the table, the little blond blinked against the sudden flare of light. Once he dropped the glass chimney back into place and adjusted the wick, his eyes began to scan the room. The meager radiance practically cast more shadows than light. Johnny stood beside him, sucking his thumb, the rest of his hand hidden by the overly long shirtsleeve. His searching eyes finally spied the papers on a shelf.
Scott was tall for his age but not so tall that he could reach the stack of recipes Lupe had put on the shelf. He pushed a chair over to the counter, cringing at the screeching protest the wooden legs made as they moved against the tile floor. He stood up on the chair and then stepped to the counter top; unaware of the fact he nearly trod on a sharp knife that had been left out.
If Scott had looked behind him he would have seen Johnny scramble up into the chair to follow him. Johnny was too short to make it up onto the cabinet. However he did see the knife, he stood on his tiptoes and stretch his little arm out as far as he could, fingers wiggling furiously in his bid to acquire the sharp utensil.
Stretching his arm up and across the shelf Scott grabbed the recipes. Once he had them in his hand he stepped back, and nearly lost his balance because he put his foot down on some obstacle.
“Owie, Squat, get off Johnny’s fingers.”
Looking down Scott saw the tiny arm; just out of reach of the prying fingers was the knife he had failed to notice.
“Johnny, get down before you fall, there’s nothing up here you need or are even allowed to touch,” Scott demanded as he carefully lifted his foot to free the trapped fingers.
The little Lancer glowered at his old brother; sometimes Scott was as bossy as Papa. He jumped from the chair with cat-like grace, landing solidly on his feet, but promptly plunged forward to the floor when he tried to walk and stepped on his shirttail. Scott leapt with lithe ability, his white cotton nightshirt billowing out around his slender gangly legs and landed softly beside him.
“Lets go sit at the table so I can read the recipe.” Scott helped his little brother up. When they got to the table he pulled out a chair and lifted Johnny on to it and then he sat in the one beside it, pulling the lamp closer to see the writing, he began to read.
“In…gred..i…ents,” sounded out Scott.
“What’s ‘in… grape… ants’, Squat?”
“Ingredients, Johnny. It’s the things we have to put together to make the biscuits.”
“Johnny want to help.”
“Okay, I’ll read what we need and you go get it.”
“Johnny do it.” He scooted off his chair with Scott holding his elbow to steady him. “What Johnny get first?”
“It says here we need 2 cups of flour, so go get two cups and a bag of flour.”
Johnny hiked up his oversized shirt and ran to the sideboard and grabbed two china cups, he raced back to the table with them and then rushed to the pantry for flour. He came back struggling with an opened ten-pound bag of flour, leaving a powdery white trail behind him. When he got to the table Scott grabbed the bag and hefted it onto the table top with a plop, sending a plume of white into the air that settled on both boys, causing them to sneeze.
“What Johnny get now?”
“ We need 4 teaspoons baking powder… so go get four teaspoons and we need the powder…I didn’t know you could wear powder and cook with it.”
Johnny shrugged at his brother before digging in the utensil drawer for four spoons. He brought them back to the table, slapping them down with a metallic clink.
“Johnny go Mamacita’s room and get powder.” The little Lancer trotted out the kitchen and down the hall to the bedroom reserved for Maria’s use when she needed to stay the night. He came back with her dusting powder in the fancy round box, “Johnny get this powder, cause it smell good like Mamacita.”
“That’s good, Johnny. I was wondering how we were going to shake the right amount out of the can. We can just scoop it out of this,” Scott stated as he placed the expensive toiletry next to growing pile of supplies.
“What need now?”
“It says 3 and then a line and a 4 teaspoons of salt. I think that means you can use three or four, it don’t matter which.”
Johnny trudged back to the utensil drawer and retrieved four more spoons. He shuffled back to the table and threw them on the top with a clatter and clank. He huffed out tiredly and swiped at his flour-dusted face that was beginning to sweat from all the activity.
“We have to have four tablespoons of lard. So go get four more spoons.”
Scuffing his tired feet across the kitchen, through the snowy white residue, Johnny managed to find four more spoons to add to the growing collection on the table. He ambled back to his brother and handed them over.
“Johnny, I don’t think these are the right spoons, we have to have tablespoons. I think that means those big spoons Mamacita stirs with that are made of wood like the table. I’ll get them, they’re in that big jar at the back of the counter.”
Popping his thumb into his mouth, Johnny watched lethargically as Squat got the spoons. The little boy’s energy was quickly waning. He laid his head down in the chair he was standing by and yawned widely, leaving drool on the seat bottom that ran from his mouth because his thumb was still in it.
“I’ll get the tub of lard, it’s too heavy for you.”
Johnny was too worn out to argue about Squat’s statement. He contentedly continued to rest, sucking his thumb as Squat disappeared into the pantry.
Scott was relieved the lard was in a big metal tub, which resembled a bucket with a lid and a handle. It enabled him to set the heavy container on the floor and pull it to the table. The metal bottom scratched across the tile floor, sending the fine particles of flour into flight. He wrestled the lid from the top and tossed it aside, leaving the container sitting on the floor between two chairs.
“Hummmm…there’s that line in the numbers again. I guess that means we can use two or three cups of buttermilk. Buttermilk? Oh, I bet that’s milk with butter added. Johnny you go get three more cups and I’ll get the milk and butter from the icebox.
The boys returned to their work area at the same time, each placing their items on the crowded surface.
“Now we need to mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl…oops we need a bowl and the mixing thing.” The blond backtracked to the counter and grabbed the eggbeater and a large wooden bowl.
He came back to the table and began to fill the bowl. He was pretty sure dry ingredients meant anything not cold or wet. Scott picked up a cup, pushed it down in the flour, spilling a portion on the table, and scooped a heaping cupful out. He dumped it in the bowl and set the cup aside. Reading his recipe he repeated the process for the second cup.
“Okay … now we need the powder.”
Johnny lifted the lid on the powder box. He was surprised to see a fuzzy pancake lying on top. He looked at his brother and shrugged, he lifted it out and watched as it sprinkled fine bits of the white substance as he moved it. Both boys paused to enjoy the familiar scent of Mamacita.
They needed four spoons of powder. Scott picked up four clean spoons and methodically dipped each one into the container, adding each heaping spoonful to the mixture.
“Johnny can’t see Squat,” Johnny complained as he tried to climb into the chair. Scott stopped his culinary efforts long enough to lift Johnny up, so he could stand on the seat bottom to see.
“Now be still so you don’t fall.” Scott referred back to his recipe and saw he needed four teaspoons of salt. He pulled the glazed salt container; that sat in the middle of the table, to him and took four clean spoons and dipped out the recommended amount.
“That’s all the dry stuff now we mix.”
Picking up the eggbeater, Scott placed the metal paddles into the bowl and vigorously turned the handle that set it into motion. The beater churned up the lightweight ingredients, sending particles into air to form a cloud and resembling fog rolling in. By the time Scott decided it was mixed enough both boys looked like little ghosts with pale faces and white hair.
Johnny giggled at the sight of his white dusted brother. “Squat have old hair like Ha.”
“So do you,” snickered Scott as he stared at his extremely pallid little brother. The whitish coating all over his head made the little boy’s eyes look even bluer than usual.
Scott picked up his instructions and had to shake off the excess flour. He read ahead, and what he read confused him; he had to figure this one out. It was time to put the lard in, but it said to cut it in. That could be a problem, he wasn’t suppose to use a knife without a grown up so how could he cut it?
Realizing his brother had stopped working; Johnny pulled his thumb from his mouth and looked quizzically at him.
“What wrong, Squat?”
“It says to cut the lard in, but I can’t use the knife by myself, I’ll get in trouble. How can I cut without a knife?”
“Papa lets Squat use the scissors.”
“Hey, that’s right and scissors cut too. You’re pretty smart for a baby, Johnny.” Scott took off for Papa’s study to get the scissors from his desk. He didn’t see the disgruntled glare on his little brother’s face over being called a baby.
Returning to the kitchen at a more sedate pace, Scott held up the scissors in triumph. He laid the implement on the table amongst the growing collection of dirty kitchen accoutrements.
Picking up his four wooden spoons, Scott scooped up globs of lard on each one. He placed them on the table. Then he held each spoon over the bowl and opening the scissors, used the blade on one side to cut through the lard and pushed it off the spoon into the bowl. When he had completed this for all four measures, he snipped the scissors closed and used them to mix until it looked like big gooey crumbs.
“This doesn’t look right.” Scott whined, as he was beginning to lose his energy.”
“Put the milks in, Squat.”
“That’s right I have to put in the milk and butter.”
Scott poured milk into three cups, and then he added a dollop of butter to each. He added it all into the bowl and stirred until he was sure his hand would fall off. He sighed and actually felt close to tears, the stuff in the bowl was too soupy to make biscuits. Before he gave up he consulted his directions again and found the answer, ‘if the dough is too wet add more flour’. Not wanting to use any more cups he started adding flour by the handful, stirring with the scissors until it got so stiff, the scissors stood up in the dough.
Glancing back over the recipe Scott saw it was time to sprinkle flour over the tabletop and roll out the dough. However first they would have to clean off the table. It was covered from one end to the other with the ingredients and dishes.
“Johnny help me move this stuff off the table. Lets put the dishes in the sink and the other stuff in the pantry.”
Having been half asleep, Johnny didn’t pay attention to what he was doing, getting out of the chair he accidentally sat down in the open tub of lard. The back of Scott’s best white Sunday shirt now had a large greasy spot on it. The clumps of lard that stuck to the cotton material fell off to litter the floor and be trod upon by little socked covered feet, as the little boys began moving about the kitchen to put things away.
Scott put the lid on the lard and drug it through the accumulated mess on the floor back into the pantry. Johnny followed with the flour sack, leaving a fresh white coating on the tiles. While Scott put the dishes in the sink, Johnny put away the milk and butter, since he couldn’t reach the door to the icebox he placed them on the bottom shelf in the pantry.
The two would be cooks met back at the table. Scott groaned as he remembered they needed to sprinkle the table so the dough wouldn’t stick to it. He started to go retrieve the flour when he spied Mamacita’s powder. It looked just like flour, it felt like it too, he decided to use it instead. He picked up the puff, tapped it down into the container and then shook it enthusiastically from one end of the table to the other.
Once he had repeated this several times and was satisfied he had an adequate layer down he dumped the dough onto the table. Then he had to look around for the rolling pin, he found it in a drawer and was surprised at how heavy it was.
Scott mashed the pin down into the middle of the dough and began rolling. He pushed forward, backwards and to the sides. Every time he found a lump he stopped and pinched it out with his fingers. After a while, he had a nice flat, white, almost circle shape. It was time to cut them into biscuits shapes. The recipe said to use a glass, so he got two from the cabinet so Johnny could help too. He realized his baby brother was being awful quite, when he turned to look for him, he saw him sitting in the chair, sucking his thumb again.
“We’re ready to cut out biscuits, Johnny. Take this glass and press it into the dough and twist it.” The two little boys set to work and soon had fourteen biscuits.
“Yeah,” Johnny cheered as he clapped his tiny hands, “Squat maked biscuits.”
“Not yet, we still have to bake them. It says on the paper to place them on a baking sheet.”
Scott didn’t think it meant a sheet like went on the bed. He figured it meant one of those small pieces of cloth the biscuits were wrapped in, when they were placed in the breadbasket. He began searching the kitchen for one, and found them in one of the sideboard drawers. He was fairly sure he needed to place it on one of the flat pans so he would be able to carry it to the oven, so he grabbed one of those too.
“Alright Johnny, as soon as I put this sheet on the pan we can put the biscuits on it and put them in the oven.”
Working together the brothers soon had a pan full of biscuits. Scott carried it to the oven, lowered the heavy cast iron door, which squeaked in protest, and slid it in. Both children were bathed in sweat from the exertion, their energy spent. They made quite a sight, covered in flour, slicked up with lard and butter and dotted with chicken pox.
“Now we’re supposed to watch carefully until they get brown but not burned.” Stated Scott.
Since they didn’t want to chance burning them they decided to leave the oven door open so they could see, and they pulled over two chairs so they could sit. The two little guys fell sound asleep in the chaotic disordered destruction wrought on the kitchen during their endeavors, as they waited for the biscuits to cook in an oven that had not been lit.
Scott’s last waking thought was Papa and Ha sure would be surprised.
Lupe made her way to the Lancer hacienda from the henhouse, having just gathered the eggs. She walked with a determined stride. Today she would prove to the family that Maria knew what she was doing when she asked her to fill in for her. Today, she would conquer those girlish feelings and fantasies about the Patron that turned her into a clumsy, awkward and inept nervous wreck. She was going to march into that kitchen and take control. The family was going to awaken to the type breakfast they were use. Lupe held her head high, her back was ramrod straight; she had a purpose!!
Stopping at the kitchen entrance to wipe her feet and transfer the egg basket to the other hand she turned the knob and pushed the door open. The bright morning sun streamed into the kitchen, fine particles of dust or some such substance, disturbed by the sweeping motion of the door, floated and glittered in the ray of light that split the muted gray cast of the enclosed area.
With her head down to insure she had cleaned the dirt from her shoes before entering the first thing Lupe saw was the white dusted floor with drag marks and little footprints. Fear clutched at her heart and constricted her lungs, her eyes widened until there was more white area showing than brown. Her fight or flight instincts were on high alert, something had happened here. There was an over powering scent of some perfumed smell. Her legs felt weak and she could barely force them forward, her arms shook, rattling the eggs together in the basket hanging in her hand.
Lupe stepped timidly into the room; her startled eyes noted the fact the curious trail also had greasy looking splotches dotted through out it. The table looked like it had been snowed on and the sink was piled high with dishes that had not been there last night when she left. Her heart began to beat wildly in terror; there was an unnatural quietness about the house. The superstitious woman began to frantically cross herself, as her irrational and gullible mind began to convince her this was the work of restless spirits.
And then the undeniable proof…the very evidence that she was right…presented its self. Her mouth dropped open, her body froze in numb terror, there, sitting on chairs that had been dragged across the kitchen, were the two ghostly white apparitions. And heaven bless their souls, they were just children.
When the littlest spirit shifted and moaned out, Lupe was galvanized into action, her formerly paralyzed limbs all tried to move at once. She attempted to run, the rapid movement of her feet caused her to slip on a patch of lard, her hands shot upwards; the basket flew from her grasp, sailing through the air like a fat, brown bird. Delicate eggs took flight only to become victims of gravity, landing in shell cracking explosions, spilling their essence upon the floor, leaving behind bright yellow dots and gelatinousness puddles.
The crunch and splat, of the abrupt meeting of eggs and floor, disturbed the two spirits. Their pale faces turned towards the direction the noise emanated from. In the middle of her limb flailing, body wildly gyrating fight to retain her balance Lupe realized she had disturbed the small ghosts. Her eyes widened in terror as she became aware they were now looking at her. When the tiniest ghost’s mouth dropped open and he moaned out an eerie sounding, ooooooooooo, the frightened woman found her voice.
Lupe began to scream, high-pitched shrill shrieks, so loud the Lancer dog Patty Pat heard them from inside the barn and took off for the house. Lupe was still screeching with deafening abandon as she crashed to the floor. Her arms and legs were still thrashing when she landed, as though she might dig down and burrow through the floor to escape the little poltergeists.
Johnny and Scott awoke to find eggs flying through the air around them, disintegrating into gooey globs on the tile floor. Just as Johnny started to sound out a surprised and distress oh, Lupe raised her voice in alarm. Now the little boys were just as frightened as she was, their screams joined and mingled with hers, as she fought to control her body and pick herself up from floor. The cacophony of clamorous sound filled the air and rose to the second floor of the house, rushing down the hallway to rudely snatch Papa and Ha from their sleep.
Murdoch leapt from the rocker, stumbling on sleep numb legs; so fast was his departure from the chair it turned over. He ran to the door noting as he did that Johnny was missing from his crib. It was a sure bet his youngest was a part of the banshee noises.
Harlan fought his covers in his impetuous need to rise from his bed. He swayed as he kicked the covers out of his way when they followed his feet to the floor, out of sheer habit he quickly crammed his feet into his slippers, unaware they were on the wrong feet.
He speedily shuffled on morning stiff legs to the door, completely forgetting his robe.
The two men met in the hall, literally, as they collided in their impulsive and spontaneous race to the rescue. The collision of the two bodies, mismatched in height and weight, sent the much smaller Harlan slamming into the wall. The force of the crash slung off one of Ha’s slippers, and it sailed through the air and landed with a plop onto a hall table, very nearly turning over a vase of flowers.
The ringing vibrations of the chaos occurring downstairs were joined by the thunderous footfalls of the two men hastening along the hallway to the unfolding scene in the kitchen. They powered down the stairs, hearts beating as loudly as their feet upon the wooden treads.
It was a neck and neck competition as to who would arrive in the kitchen first. Murdoch pulled ahead on the last step when Harlan tripped due to his awkward gait from his remaining slipper being upon the wrong foot. The shoe flew from his foot turning end over end, until it landed with a thud on the open oven door.
Papa had dropped to his knees and was already enfolding his terrified boys into his comforting, strong arms when Ha hit a splotch of lard and his valiant attempts to correct his stumble from the stairs went completely askew. His feet left the floor, his arms wind-milled violently as he temporarily took flight, he groaned out a protracted and startled OH! Impact with Lupe was imminent; there was no way to avoid it. The color leeched from his face, his white hair fluttered about and his equally white nightshirt billowed about his seemingly lighter than air body as it advanced on the prone woman.
Lupe fought with the slick and slippery substance smeared all over the floor, every time she about lifted her self from her predicament, gravity mocked her and sent her sprawling again. She frantically sucked in air to fuel her screams…and then her voice failed her…all color drained from her face. Floating straight towards, arms grabbing for her, was a large, moaning spirit.
Harlan landed on Lupe with an explosive grunt, pinning her to the mess covered tiles. They were eyeball to eyeball. Some how Lupe managed to slither out from under Harlan. She crabbed walked her way to the counter, she flipped over onto her knees and using the countertop for support scrambled her way upright. She glanced back at the ghost on the floor, and the two little ones held in the Patron’s arms, her traumatized mind could take no more. She ran pell-mell for the still open door, lithely jumping the barking Patty Pat as she race into the house. Across the garden and out into the open she fled, jumping the fence in a single bounding leap, when presented with the obstacle to her get- away, never even breaking her stride.
With Lupe’s unorthodox departure, silence reined in the kitchen except for the wet lapping sound of Patty Pat’s tongue as she licked eggs from the floor. Harlan struggled to sit up, his amazed gaze taking in the untidy disorder that encompassed the normally neat kitchen. When his stunned eyes met those of his son-in-law, Harlan began to giggle, borderline twittering in unabashed amusement.
Murdoch resembled a fish out of water, his mouth opening and shutting as his eyes tried to take in the details of his destroyed kitchen. He was crouched on the floor with an arm wrapped around each son. The little boys had calmed down at their Papa’s arrival. Murdoch’s eyes darted from one disaster festooned area to another. Finally his eyes met those of his father-in-law. The high society Boston gentleman sat in the midst of a flour coated, lard smeared and egg speckled floor…barefoot, his hair in tangled disarray, and in his nightshirt, now stained with the various food particles on the floor, giggling like a school girl with a secret.
The hilarity of the situation struck Murdoch’s funny bone, he laughed until he wheezed and went limp from breathless humor. He plopped heavily down on his backside, grimacing as he felt the squish and crunch of egg beneath him.
When he was able to catch his breath, he squeaked out, “What happened here?”
“Surprise,” hollered Johnny as he pointed to the oven, “Squat read the ‘rest peas’ destructions and made you some biscuits.”
“I’ll say he followed the destructions,” muttered Papa under his breath, but with a wide smile on his dazed face.
It became clear to Scott what a mess they had made while making biscuits, now that the kitchen was lit with sunlight instead of just the meager radiance of one lit lamp. His eyes widened in renewed distress. He looked frantically about, not quite sure if he would be in serious trouble or not, both Papa and Ha had laughed, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t think about it and get mad later. He decided he might better have a good excuse, his mind churned as he tried to come up with a good one.
Finally Scott stuttered out, “Johnny was hungry.”
All eyes were turned towards the stove, as the sound of suppressed choking refocused their attention on Johnny. The little boy had climbed a chair, reached into the oven and retrieved an unbaked biscuit. Johnny knew it felt squishy, but so did Mamacita’s cookies before they baked, and they still tasted good. He crammed the whole thing in his mouth and promptly began to gag.
Johnny spit gooey dough furiously from his mouth. It felt like it was growing bigger in his mouth. It was slick and slimy and coated his tongue. The biscuits might have smelled good but they sure didn’t taste good. It seemed like the more he spit out the more there was. His tummy began doing a funny fluttering thing, and then it felt like there was a fist inside his belly trying to punch its way out. Johnny whimpered as his mouth watered making the uncooked bread slide about his tongue. He finally spit out the last of the dough …all of a sudden it felt like his stomach was squeezing its self together.
Papa rushed to Johnny’s aid, arriving at the chair he was standing in, just in time for his clothes to provide the absorbent material to catch the projectile geyser of apple juice that came roaring from Johnny’s mouth, as the last of the rejected dough slid down his chin to land with a wet plop on the seat bottom. Warm apple juice soaked into the front of Murdoch’s pants, the excess fell on his boots and the rest made a puddle in the floor, surrounded by flour, lard, and eggs.
“Buuuurrrppppp…excuse me.” Stated Johnny as he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of Squat’s Sunday shirt.
Murdoch fought the rebellion of his own stomach, tasting bitter bile tainting his own tongue. He felt like running for the hills as Lupe apparently had, but with the way his luck had been running he would probably slip in one of the assorted piles of debris on the floor and break his leg before he even got to the door.
Murdoch stood there stunned as Scott helped his Grandfather from the floor. His disbelieving eyes noted the family looked as damaged as the room. The boys were flour coated and their clothes decorated with a variety of stains. Ha was shoeless, unkempt and his nightshirt soiled with various blots, marks, blemishes and residue acquired from the filthy floor. He snorted as he realized he looked as though he had urinated in his own pants. This definitely was not the Lancer family’s finest hour, and he hoped no one else ever found out about it.
Johnny began dancing on the chair, little feet mashing raw dough into the chair seat as he sang, “Good morning, good morning. Good morning, Doc Sam. How are you? How are you, on this fine day?”
/Oh, God…no, please don’t…/ Murdoch’s prayer died in his throat and a groan was born, as he raised his head and glared towards the door. His stance wilted and if possible he would have liked to disappear into the floor, just melt into like ice in the hot sun.
“Good morning to you too, Johnny.” Sam snickered as he took in the total chaos of house and family. “ I was going to ask how things have been going, but I feel that would be a redundant question after seeing the evidence.”
The big rancher raised his hands in a beseeching manner, “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“Oh, really…well, I hate to be the bearer of more bad news but I think you might need glasses, Murdoch.”
Murdoch squinted as he tried to decipher his handwriting in the ledger books, the lamp he had sitting near the book put off more heat than light. He was beginning to think perhaps Sam was actually right when he had stated last Monday morning that he might need glasses. Normally he liked to work on the books during the day when the big picture window behind his desk had plenty of sunlight streaming through it to illuminate his work. Glancing at the grandfather clock he saw it was ten minutes past ten.
Circumstances beyond his control had him trying to balance his books while the boys were asleep. With the boys being sick, it was taking both him and Harlan to tend to them. They had all learned a hard and very messy lesson Monday of the past week about little boys left unattended or as Harlan so eloquently understated they learned not to fall asleep on the job.
Murdoch’s reminisces of Monday morning painted a wary smile on his face and a belly- rolling chuckle that didn’t actually make a sound. He couldn’t help it, every time he pictured Lupe sailing over the fence, in her mad dash to any place saner than Lancer, he got tickled. He had been lucky that Rosa, the new bride of one of his longtime hands, Diego, had agreed to fill in as cook. And praise heaven, the woman could actually cook. The only draw back had been the newlywed came long enough to cook and then returned to her quarters as she was still in the process of setting up her new home.
The chair squeaked in protest at the tall rancher’s weight as he swiveled it to face the window and stared thoughtfully out on the ranch. The glow from the full moon bathed the verdant landscape in a purplish blush; the white washed walls of the out buildings were shrouded by the violet hue, making them stand out in stark contrast. Sighing softly as a reflective mood settled over him, Murdoch ran his hands through his thick brown hair. He knew it was just his imagination but he thought he could still feel the stickiness of syrup in it.
Rising from his chair with a grunt over the stiffness of his legs and the numbness of his behind from sitting for so long, Murdoch strode to one of the wall mirrors and inspected his hair. He leaned in close and ran his fingers through the healthy mass of hair. His calloused digits detected none of the tacky residue of the maple syrup. He chuckled to himself as he thought he was lucky it wasn’t all gray from the stress of the past week, or worse yet turned loose from his head from all the washing to get the syrup out.
Looking back on last Monday, now he could laugh about it, however last week he had come dangerously close to putting a harness and leash on his youngest. A deep smile split the big man’s face as he recalled how he, Johnny and Scott came to be coated in expensive Vermont maple syrup.
The morning had started out with what was now known in the family as the Great Biscuit Making Caper. The two youngest Lancers had managed to single handedly destroy the kitchen, run off the reserve cook and provide Doc Jenkins with plenty of evidence he could have had the entire family committed as lunatics. Thank God, Sam saw the humor in it all and had laughed until he hiccoughed repeatedly for an hour.
The kind-hearted doctor was a good friend and he had fallen right in and helped Murdoch wash the two little ones up. Whilst they did that, Harlan cleaned up himself, and the ladies that came in each day to clean, tackled the mess in the kitchen. Everyone met back in the kitchen for a late breakfast cooked by the one of the housekeepers.
It was during breakfast that Doc Jenkins accidentally set the next toddler induced calamity into motion. He had advised giving both boys an oatmeal bath later in the day because when they had washed them up earlier he had seen a proliferation of blisters covering them as well as evidence that they had been scratching. In fact they were still digging at their skin as they ate. If any of the adults at the table had been looking at Johnny they would have seen the look of curious concentration cross the inquisitive little face.
Murdoch and Sam ushered the children into the kitchen, both men were sporting wet shirtfronts from Johnny’s enthusiastic style of bathing, which included trying to swim. The little boy had been thrilled to be bathing in Papa’s big tub since the one used for the boys was currently sitting in the disaster area formerly known as a kitchen. Johnny’s pronouncement that swimming in the tub was better than in the horse trough brought loud gales of laughter from the adults and an embarrassed and eye rolling reaction from Scott.
Some of the stress of the morning seemed to melt away as Murdoch entered the kitchen. The women had done a remarkable job of getting things back in order. He was greeted by the scent of baking biscuits and fried ham, though he could still smell the essence of Maria’s powder mingled with it. Selena was busy mopping the floor, while Consuela scrambled a pan of fluffy eggs. Murdoch’s stomach growled in anticipation of finally getting a normal breakfast.
Johnny rushed forward, small hand digging in mild agitation at his itching head. “Yippy, Squat’s biscuits are cooking!”
Consuela started to correct him, but when she spied the disheartened look on Scott’s face, she smiled warmly and stated, “Yes, ‘the’ biscuits are cooking. The stove must be lit for the oven to work. You little one’s must promise you will not try to bake on your own again.” The experienced grandmother, deftly stopped Johnny from touching the hot oven door as she spoke to him.
Murdoch scooped the toddler up and plopped him in his high chair, while Consuela retrieved the hot biscuits from the oven. She expertly slid the biscuits into a breadbasket and handed it to Scott, who proudly set on the table, while she toted the coffeepot over. And then the famished crowd immediately filled their plates.
Harlan arrived in the kitchen and sniffed the delicious aroma of properly cooked food. He eased himself down onto his chair with a muffled grunt.
“Are you all right, Ha?”
“I’m fine Scotty, just a little sore from my fall.”
“If you’re going to fall, Ha, it’s better to fall on a fat person, they’re softer than skinny people like Lupe.” Stated Scott with all of his eight-year old world wise knowledge, as he ran his fingers across his itching scalp.
Sam and Murdoch snickered at the pole-axed look on Harlan’s face over Scott’s bit of wisdom. Murdoch glanced towards Johnny, who was being entirely too quiet and groaned in frustration. Johnny was busy devouring a strawberry preserves laden biscuit. He had globs of the fruit around his face, in his hair, under his chin, on his neck and finger trails of it disappearing into his shirt from his efforts to ease his itching.
“I know we just cleaned these boys up, but you might want to consider giving them a soak in oatmeal to help the discomfort of the erupted pox.” Sam advised.
Johnny chewed heartily on his biscuit as he studied Papa and Doc. /Yuck… oatmeal…Johnny sure hoped they were going to make it like Mamacita did cause that was the only way Johnny liked it with plenty of maple syrup and brown sugar./
Breakfast was interupted by a frantic beating on the heavy oak front door. A panicked ranch hand was ushered into the kitchen and in an anxious frenzy he informed the doctor he needed to come to Trudy Sudland, as they feared her case of chicken pox had developed into a case of pneumonia and she had been vomiting all night.
While Sam grabbed his coat and bag, Consuela swiftly sliced open three biscuits and filled them with ham slices and wrapped them in a gingham napkin for the doctor to eat as he traveled.
The family went back to eating their breakfast. Murdoch asked Selena to put on water to heat to fill the tub for the boys to soak in the oatmeal. He explained they needed to put in the hot water, sprinkle in the oatmeal, let it sit a few minutes and then add cold water until the bath was tepid, according to Sam’s instructions. Johnny curiously watched Selena as he finger fed himself. Papa saw the breech in table manners and was just too tired to battle with the little boy.
As the water heated, a pleasant steamy feel invaded the kitchen area. When the water reached boiling point the agitated rolling of the liquid made the pot tremble as the water bounced against the sides of it. The two women dumped the water into the tub, and emptied two cups of dry oatmeal to it.
The ladies began clearing the table of used dishes and put them in the sink to soak, and then they headed upstairs to begin their duties so the boys would have privacy. Murdoch added the cold water to the tub, Ha busied himself wiping up Johnny, and Scott wiggled in his chair until he decided he could hold it no longer and headed for the outhouse.
A loud commotion outside followed by the loud scream of a child had Papa and Ha racing outside. Johnny, still sitting in his highchair, was alone in the kitchen. He studied the tub with the oatmeal, Papa did not make it the way he liked it, so he decided to be a big help and add the things he usually had in his oatmeal.
First he had to get out of the highchair. Johnny knew if he just tried to push it back from the table he would turn it over, he had done that before and Papa had told him if he did it again he would have to have the tray on it. The little wheels in his mind spun around furiously as he contemplated a solution. He popped his thumb in his mouth, as that always helped him to think better. He sucked and thought; he laid his head on the table, he grinned, leaving a puddle of drool on the table, as the answer came to him.
Johnny braced his feet on the footrest of the chair, slightly lifting his body until he could lay his chest on the table. He began to shimmy and crawl his way across the tabletop. He slid all the way to the other side of it until he came to Squat’s chair, then he stood up and jumped onto the seat bottom, finally he leapt from there to the floor.
Johnny hurried over to the tub. He peered in and made a disgusted face, sticking out his tongue at the sight of the scummy looking water. Bending over he ladled his hand over the surface and tasted it. “YUCK!”
Plain oatmeal was nasty, nasty, nasty, he had to fix this. Toddling into the pantry, Johnny found a big bag of sugar. He pulled it from the shelf, spilling a little in his hair and on the floor. He tugged the weighty bag across the kitchen, huffing and puffing from the effort. Once he reached the bath he tried to steady the bag and pour the sugar in, but it was too heavy. The next thing he knew the sugar, bag and all, tipped over the side and landed in the water with a plop and splash. He sampled another mouthful, bleccchhh…it still wasn’t good. He decided he really needed that sugar that was brown.
Racing back to the pantry, Johnny scanned the contents for what he needed. He finally spied it on one of the higher shelves, stored in a jar. Johnny nimbly climbed the wooden boards like a monkey. He held on to the edge of the shelf tightly with one hand as he wrapped an arm around the jar. His elbow accidentally knocked a container of homemade pickles down, the quart jar hit the big bag of flour and rolled off, so instead of shattering the container cracked when it hit the tiles, the bottom of the flour sack soaked up the pickle juice that leaked out.
Johnny struggled to open the brown sugar, when the lid finally came off, it went flying and landed soundlessly in the tub and sank to the bottom. He up-ended the quart container and shook the contents into the water. The lump of brown made a ker-splash sound, it bobbed merrily in the water. Bubbles formed around the sugary mass, as it started melting away. Johnny dipped his jar into the tub and tasted his concoction. He wrinkled his nose and grimaced, it need maple syrup for sure.
The icebox where the syrup was kept, after it was opened, was too high for him to get into, so he went back into the pantry to look. He giggled out loud and clapped his hands in delight, there was a brand new tin of it sitting on a shelf at just his height. He knew it was the syrup because the container was painted blue and there was a picture of a tree on it. There were some letters, too; Ha said one time they spelled Vermont. Using both arms he pulled the container from the shelf and hugged it to his chest. Johnny grunted from the effort, as it was heavier than it looked. He awkwardly shuffled back to the tub, sat the container on the floor and unscrewed the lid.
Lifting the tin up he tried to balance it on the edge of the bath, the syrup began to chug sluggishly from the opening, leaving a trail on the outside of the tub and a small puddle in the floor. Johnny leaned against the bath, and using both hands shoved the container further over the side so that the gooey substance began to fall in the water with a plop, until the stream of it became steady. He let go with his right hand, holding it under the flow of syrup until his hand was coated; he began to lick the sweet treat from his fingers.
When he tried to repeat the action he lost his grip and the tin began to slip, he tried to catch it but leaned in too far and found himself pitching into the tub headfirst, clothes, boots and syrup tin. SPLASH!
Johnny quickly bobbed back to the surface, sputtering and swiping at his face. He licked his lips as he brushed his hair from its plastered place on his forehead. His bottom lip protruded in a disgruntled pout as he realized the oatmeal still didn’t taste right. Johnny’s eye’s brightened in glee when he figured out just what was needed…re-rees!!
Crawling over the edge of the tub, Johnny dropped to the floor and headed once more for the pantry, leaving a shiny sticky trail from the water that ran in rivulets from his sopping clothes. He hunted through the shelves until he found the jar of raisins. He rushed back to the bath with his last ingredient. When he couldn’t get the lid off he simply plunge the whole jar into his mixture. He laughed in amusement when it floated. Now his oatmeal was just how he liked it. He shed his wet clothes and hopped in, yelping when his tender bottom sat on the metal lid submerged in the water along with the jar, syrup tin and the sugar sack. He was busy trying to get the raisins open when a red-eyed Squat came in.
The little blond had gone to use the outhouse and had almost literally been scared piss-less. While he was in the little building the hands had been moving one of their breeding bulls, the bovine took exception to his treatment and charged away dragging a hap-less lightweight hand along the dirt as he did. A great commotion arose as the other workers and Patty Pat gave chase. They were all trying to herd him into a corral.
In his wild dash for freedom the enraged animal had impacted the outhouse head first, scaring Scott, as he tended to his business. The child’s frightened scream had brought his Papa and Ha running to the rescue. The two men had spent close to ten minutes calming Scott down; he was as embarrassed as he was terrified because he had run from the building with his pants around his ankles. Once Murdoch had ascertained the child was not harmed he asked him to go back in the house and check on Johnny.
Scott entered the kitchen, his eyes still mottled and red from crying. He noticed right away Johnny was not in his highchair, and then he saw he was already in the tub.
“Look, Squat,” Johnny called as he struggled with the raisin jar, “ Johnny take oatmeal bath.”
Scott had heard Papa and the doctor talking about it and he knew Papa told the ladies to prepare the bath. So he thought nothing of Johnny being in the tub, he stripped his clothes off so he could join him. As he climbed into the tub he put his hand in the syrup that dripped down the edge. He sat down and scratched his head with the coated hand and stood his blond bangs straight up. He noticed the water was really sticky but thought nothing of that either, he didn’t know what an oatmeal bath was suppose to feel like.
“Why do you have the raisins in the tub, Johnny?”
“Johnny like raisins with Johnny’s oatmeal.” Johnny had given up on opening the jar and was happily using it for a boat.
Scott felt like he was sitting on something, he reached under water and felt a piece of material, he tugged and pulled trying to retrieve it, when it finally came up Scott flipped back, dunking himself. As his feet went up he kicked Johnny in the chin snapping his little head back and causing him to toss the jar he had been playing with, it sailed over the side and met the tile floor with a shattering stop. Johnny, of course, shrieked mightily over the ill treatment.
Hearing glass break and a scream from the house, Papa and Ha tried to barrel through the door at the same time. Murdoch physically lifted Ha and set him down inside the door so they could gain entry.
Ha was too stunned by the sight of his grandsons sitting in the tub looking like, for lack of better words, Bog monsters from the swamp. The little boys were covered in chicken pox sores, their hair seemed to be standing at attention, and they were covered in bits of oatmeal that was stuck to their skin as well as in their hair.
Murdoch hurried across the kitchen and dropped to his knees by the tub, he grasped the sides of it right where the gooey substance resided. His dazed and confused eyes took in the grubby boys, the broken jar, raisins all over the floor, the wet shiny trail from the pantry and Johnny’s pile of drenched clothes. His shoulder’s drooped, he ran his hands through his hair in crazed agitation and groaned loudly when he realized his fingers felt glued to his hair.
The fiasco had ended with Murdoch and the boys back in the bathhouse, while the ladies cleaned the kitchen again. Murdoch had to lather and rinse his head twice to get all the syrup out. Ha had helped the boys bathe in clean water. Papa had lectured and fussed the whole time he shampooed, warning both boys there was to be no more cooking or fixing food without an adult present.
Scott meekly replied, “Yes, Sir,” even though he didn’t think he had done anything wrong this time.
Johnny had giggled as he pointed to Papa’s suds covered head and compare the whiteness of it to Ha’s. “Papa looks like Ha. Want to hear Johnny’s new poem?”
The scamp began to recite another of his unique versions of Mother Goose.
“Beetle Beetle jumping my son John,
Bumped his head with a brown frown on.
One flew off and one stayed on,
Beetle Beetle jumping my son John.”
The chiming of the grandfather clock startled the big rancher. The melodious tone telling him the time was now 10:30. Murdoch was shocked as he realized he had been wool gathering for twenty minutes, as he stood in front the mirror. He cocked his head and listened carefully for any sounds from upstairs, all was quiet, for a change. He snickered as he thought about some of the minor incidents of the past week. They were easier to laugh about now. Accepting that his mind was to preoccupied to continue working on the ledgers, Murdoch poured himself a scotch and sat down to contemplate some of the antics of his boys, a big smile split his stern face as he sipped his liquid courage.
The scotch slipped smoothly down his throat and the warmth of it spread across his belly. Murdoch shifted and pulled a throw pillow, which was stuffed uncomfortably against his back, out from behind him and tossed it into the blue chair. When he did a stray feather from a Rhode Island Red chicken fluttered and took flight on the puff of air current disturbed by the pillow.
The sight of the feather caused him to snort, sniffing the fiery liquor up his nose. The scotch blazed a searing path through his nasal cavity, causing tears to well in his eyes. The pain of the experience however could not dull the mirth of the remembrance of how the feather ended up in the chair.
After the oatmeal bath fiasco on Monday of last week things had gone fairly easy with the boys, other than the itching and trying to prevent them from scratching, as their chicken pox progressed to the beginning to scab over stage. The children had been too ill and cranky, clinging to their Papa and Ha, to get into mischief. Murdoch had moved to the bed in the nursery to keep an eye on Johnny. There had been no more mishaps or catastrophes until Thursday morning when Johnny had managed, albeit by accident, to slip quietly from his crib.
Early Thursday Morning
Johnny tossed and turned, rubbing at his scabby pox with sock covered hands. He peered through the bars of his crib to see if Papa was asleep. He giggled at the sight of Papa sleeping in his big boy bed. His bare feet hung over the end of the bed, the blankets were not long enough to cover them.
All of a sudden Papa snorted and flipped from his stomach to his back and started snoring. He sounded like a riled grizzly bear. Johnny cautiously stood up, all the while watching Papa in case he woke up. Johnny was ready to get up, but he didn’t see any light peeking through the small opening between the curtains so he doubted Papa would let him get up yet.
Across the room, behind the rocker, lying on the floor, Johnny spied his apron/cape. It had dropped from his hand last night as Papa rocked him to sleep. He stretched out his hands and even wiggled his fingertips trying to reach his treasure, but it was no use it was too far away. He sighed heavily and jumped in fright when Papa snorted again and snored even louder than before. Johnny discontentedly rested his arms on the top rail of the crib and then pressed his face into his hands as he stared longingly at the cape.
There he stood minding his own business when a barely audible click sounded from the side of his crib and all of a sudden the side slid down. Johnny was caught off guard and balance. When the side dropped so did his arms and head, flipping him, heels over his head, onto the floor with a muffled thud. The breath was briefly knocked from his body, and he considered flying into a fit about the ill treatment, but before he could muster the air to begin his tantrum, he caught sight of his apron.
Johnny nimbly jumped up from the floor and scooted behind the rocker for his beloved keepsake. As he brushed by the drapes, the opening widened and he was able to see that the gray of dawn had already begun. It was light enough he could make out the shape of the chickens as they milled about pecking, and looking for their feed. Seeing the chickens reminded Johnny about Mamacita, sometimes he got up early with her and she would let him scatter the feed for the chickens, while she gathered the eggs.
Turning from the window, Johnny bent over and picked up his apron. He had a hard time grasping it, as the socks on his hands impeded his dexterity, but he didn’t dare take them off. Papa had warned him good what would happened if he took them off before he said it was okay.
Johnny studied his sock-covered hands, he couldn’t suck his thumb with them on, and he really needed the comfort of the action. His eyes brightened as he figured out what to do. He pushed one side of the sock down until his thumb was revealed; yet the sock was still on his hand. Johnny giggled as he popped his thumb into his mouth, dragging his apron by the strings he toddled quietly from the room, as Papa practically fluttered the bedcovers with his loud snores.
Johnny crept silently, with the exception of the wet sucking and pulling sound of his thumb in his mouth, down the hall; he didn’t stop at Squat’s room since he was sleeping with Ha. He arrived at the head of the staircase and could feel the warmer air of the kitchen flowing upward, which meant, someone had lit the stove already. He sat down and thumped down the stairs on his padded nighttime diaper, Papa didn’t like for him to walk down the steep stairs on his own because his legs were short, so he sat to go down.
Selena had been in earlier to light the stove and then left to go over to the smoke house to retrieve a slab of bacon. She left a large wooden bowl, with the chicken feed in it, on the counter by the back door, as she intended to feed the chickens and gather the eggs after returning from the smokehouse with the meat. Selena had turned out to be a wonderful cook, but being young and just married she had no experience with children.
Johnny reached the bottom step, stumbling as he stood up and tripped on his apron, sprawling into a heap on the floor. He extracted his thumb from his mouth with an audible pop, rolled over and sat up. Since he didn’t have an audience for his fall he decided he was fine. He pulled his apron/cape out from under himself and placed it over his head.
After standing he glanced around the kitchen, but didn’t see anyone. He did spy the big chicken feed bowl on the counter though, so he decided to surprise Selena by feeding the birds. He pulled a chair to the counter and climbed up to reach the bowl, it was full of feed so the chickens had not been fed. He grasped the edge of the bowl and paused to consider the best way to get down. He couldn’t jump or he might spill the contents.
Johnny squatted down, so he could sit and then scoot out of the chair. As he lowered himself the bowl caught the edge of the counter and tipped, sprinkling bits of cracked corn into his hair. He shook his head and sent the debris flying about and out of his hair. He slid to the edge of the seat and dropped to the floor, the bowl dipping down and spilling a little more fed.
Little sock covered feet trod in the cracked corn littering the floor, the rough substance stuck to the fiber of the socks. Johnny opened the back door and was just about to stride out into the yard when he remembered he wasn’t supposed to go outside by himself. If he waited for Selena then he wouldn’t be able to surprise her. A smile brightened his face, just like the morning sun lights the sky, when he figured out what to do. He could throw the feed from here.
"Here chick chick chick, Johnny got some food for you." He scooped up a measure of fed with his sock covered hand and tried to throw it. Part of it remained caught in fibers of the sock and the rest fell right in front of him. He shook his arm, and a bit more trickled slowly out of the coarseness of the wool sock.
The excited squawk of one of the hens and her headlong rush towards the food source garnered the attention of the others, and so began a chicken stampede, even the biddies trailed along after the mama hens. Seeing so many of the birds startled the little boy and when they pushed all the way up to him and began pecking at his feet, he backed up.
The more he retreated the further they advanced until Johnny was almost across the kitchen. He kept throwing down the cracked corn as he made his get away. The chickens pecked at it, their beaks making a funny click and ping sound as they hit against the hard tile floor. One of the big hens pecked right on his foot, and yanked at his little toe. Johnny jerked and squealed, he turned and ran through the archway into the dining room, leaving a trail of food that enticed the chickens to follow him.
Streaking across to the great room, Johnny glanced back and saw the birds in hot pursuit. Cracked corn bounced from the bowl scattering about the room in his frantic dash from the hungry fowls. He tripped on the edge of the rug; the bowl went airborne with a few of the chickens leaping into the air to follow it. Their wings flapped, feathers loosened and flew off to float down onto the furniture. Baby chicks flooded the room, spreading out and hiding under things.
The bowl landed in the blue chair, along with a couple of chickens. Johnny ended up face down on the floor, fighting off chickens that tried to peck the food off of him. One fat chicken sat on his head plucking at his hair, yanking it until the little boy began to screech, " Help Squat, HELP HELP!" The chickens clucked and squawked, pecking and scratching at anything with feed on it. Sunlight streamed through the picture window and the roosters began to crow, especially loud was the one that had perched on top of Papa’s model ship.
Patty Pat, having heard the ruckus, raced in the open kitchen door. She charged into the great room adding her imperative bark to the chaotic chorus of Johnny’s screams and calls for help, chickens were clucking and squawking, roosters were crowing and biddies were peeping and chirping. Frightened chickens dispersed in every direction as the dog barreled through the room lunging and snapping at the birds. They leapt awkwardly into the air looking for safety from the sharp teeth of the agitated collie. In their fear, several of the overly excited birds dropped excrement on the furniture, rugs and bare floor. One particularly over wrought, high-strung hen dropped an egg, and it landed on a throw pillow, rolled off and splattered on the floor.
Upstairs, Scott jerked awake to a deafening racket from downstairs. He could hear his baby brother screeching for aid. He scrambled over Ha, accidentally elbowing him in the nose and streaked out of the room hollering, "I’m coming Johnny."
Ha stumbled from the bed, holding his bleeding nose and tried to follow Scott. With his head back and pinching the bridge of his nose to stem the blood flow, he managed to run smack into the doorframe. The abrupt meeting of his head with the wood raised a new bruise on his temple to replace the one he had acquired when he fell in the doctor’s office.
Murdoch jolted awake as Scott rushed by yelling out to Johnny. The big man tried to roll from the bed and cracked his ankle on the bedpost, and then had to fight to untangle himself from the blankets. He finally got his feet on the floor and himself upright. He hurried as fast as he could with a step-hop-limp gait from his throbbing ankle as he made his way towards the stairs. The loud ruckus coming from the first floor sounded like a cougar was chasing a herd of buffalo through the house.
Arriving in the great room first, Scott found his baby brother being attacked by chickens. He grabbed the poker from the fireplace, not noticing the bird poop covered handle, he waded into the wild fracas and began swinging his weapon. The animalistic riot of noise was joined by the sound of glass shattering as the poker slipped from his hands and connected solidly with several decanters of liquor on the sideboard and exploded their shapely crystal elegance into shards of ruin.
Thundering into the room, Murdoch was temporarily immobilized by the state of chaos, panic and disorder. Scott was staring at his hands, gagging and squealing in disgust at what looked like bird mess. Johnny was on the floor, kicking and screaming as a chicken sat on his head plucking at his hair. Biddies ran on trembling legs under furniture and around the chickens that milled about eating the liberal coating of cracked corn feed littering the house. There were feathers floating about the room as well as covering several surfaces, chicken excrement lay about on floor and furniture. Liquor flowed to the floor from the bar; he did a double take at the rooster perched on his model ship crowing loudly. Patty Pat had ceased her barking and was busy licking up a puddle of scotch. Murdoch briefly considered joining her, he had a feeling he would need a …no several stiff drinks today.
A dazed and confused Harlan finally stumbled into the room sporting a new bruise on his temple from connecting with the doorframe, and a bloody front to his nightshirt. It was his dubious misfortune to tread upon the gelatinousness and slick substance of a broken egg. Ha’s arms began to windmill, as his feet shot out from under him, thank goodness for the plump, yet disgruntled chicken that saved his head from direct contact with the hard tile floor. Quite fortuitously his left leg flailed out as he fell and, kicked the hen perched upon Johnny’s head, off.
Murdoch reached forward and picked the feather up, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger, watching the light from the fire shine on its wispy fringes of streaked hues of red. He wasn’t surprise the housekeepers had missed the feather. The great room had been full of them. He was still stunned and amazed that a clutch of chickens and a tiny toddler could wrought such destruction in the house. He snickered as he recalled how he had threatened to cover the top of Johnny’s crib with chicken wire to keep him in it.
That had occurred on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, all the sores were scabbing over and some of them drying up. The boys were cranky from the itching, but at least the fever was over. Their appetites were back to normal and it was a battle every morning to convince Johnny he could only have one cookie from the big countdown jar Mamacita had made them. The container was around half-empty and if Murdoch thought it would bring Mamacita home, he would march in the kitchen and eat every cookie and morsel of crumbs.
Yesterday, on Sunday evening, they had a minor dust-up between the boys when Scott, having grown tired of his baby brother’s company, convinced the little boy he was going to change into a chicken because he had scratched at his pox. Murdoch shook his head and jiggled his finger in his ear, as he was sure he could still feel the terrified shrieks of his youngest vibrating in his ears.
The boys had been playing in Scott’s room, when the youngest Lancer began to scream. Murdoch had been working and at his desk and when the first scream pierced the air he had jumped up so fast his chair flew back and bounced off the wall. He hit the stairs at a gallop; he increased his pace climbing the steps, taking them three treads at a time with his long legs. He appeared at the end of the hall just as Johnny streaked from Squat’s room in a full-blown tizzy.
The little boy saw his Papa and raced for the comfort and safety of his arms. His little legs were still pumping in a running motion, as he was lifted up.
"What’s wrong son? Are you hurt?" questioned Papa, as his hands covertly check for injuries.
"Johnny not want to be a chicken and live in the chicken coop," wailed the toddler, as he clutched his Papa’s shirt and smeared his tear and mucus stained face into the crook of his neck.
"Now why would you think you were turning into a chicken," Papa asked the still snubbing child.
Johnny turned his red and emotionally raw face to his Papa, pushed his little hand into his shirt and pulled out a handful of feathers and began to wail as he explained. "Squat say Johnny growing feathers cause Johnny scratched Johnny's chicken pops and now Johnny have to go live with the chickens. Johnny don’t want to."
"Calm down," Papa soothed, patting and cuddling his baby. "Lets go have a talk with your big brother."
Upon entering his oldest son’s room, Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he looked around for the boy. The room was in disarray. Toys cluttered the floor and the covers had been taken from the bed and used to make a tent. Scott was apparently hiding, as he was nowhere to be seen.
"All right, Scott, come out and lets have a discussion." The only sound he heard following the directive was the sniff and snuffle of Johnny.
They waited a minute in silence until Johnny ventured, "Where Squat at, Papa?"
"I don’t know where Scott is, right now, Johnny. But I can tell you where he is going to be, in more trouble than he cares to be, if he doesn’t come out now."
The door to the cedar wardrobe squeaked open, and a little blond head peeked out. When he saw the serious look on Papa’s face, Scott’s shoulders slumped dejectedly. He slowly crawled out of his hiding place, and stood guiltily, with head bowed, in front of Papa.
"Scott, did you tell Johnny he was going to turn into a chicken?"
"Because he was making a big mess in my room and he never helps clean it up. So I told him if he didn’t quit being as messy as a barnyard animal he would turn in to one. Then I put those feathers, I found in the great room, in his shirt and told him that was the proof."
"What do you need to do Scott?"
"I’m sorry, Johnny, you aren’t really turning into a chicken. I made that up."
"Now then, young man, you may clean up your room by yourself while I settle Johnny for the night."
Murdoch yawned widely as he recalled that had been the last time the boys had needed speaking to or correcting. They had awakened in good moods, this morning, the tenth day of Mamacita’s absence and had been content to do whatever they had been asked all day. The day had been a much needed and welcome reprieve from the preceding ones.
The grandfather clock chimed out the time of ten o’clock, pulling Murdoch from his reflective mood. He yawned again and stretched his long limbs. He decided he’d better head to bed if he planned on keeping up with two rambunctious boys tomorrow. Tuesday morning would be here before he wanted it to be.
Standing up Murdoch trudged into the kitchen and left his scotch glass in the sink, he paused to glare at the half-full cookie jar. He glanced around to make sure no one was lurking about to see and hear what he was about to do. Murdoch rubbed the container of baked goods, like Aladdin had his magic lamp, and wished aloud, " Please hurry and be down to three cookies, so Mamacita will be home?"
A deep sigh echoed through the empty kitchen as Murdoch turned on his heel and headed for the stairs. His boots made a muffled shuffling noise as he scuffed his feet tiredly along, barely picking them up. He had to consciously make himself tread easy on the steps, instead of setting his feet down with a heavy thud. The higher he climbed the more weary he felt, but at least he wouldn’t have to try to cram his tall frame in the double bed in the nursery, as he had moved Johnny’s crib to his room. The move was made not just for his comfort but also because his door had a lock and the nursery door did not.
Quietly entering his room, he closed the door and locked it. He crossed to the crib to gaze upon the perfection of his baby boy, even dotted with chicken pox marks. The little cherub like face was lit by a moonbeam resting upon it. Johnny lay sprawled on his back, nightshirt twisted and riding up above his diaper, his right arm hung out of the crib, between two slats with his apron clutched in it. His left hand cupped his cheek, as he sucked his thumb. The hedonistic joy and squeezing sensation that his love of the child brought to his heart almost took Murdoch's breath.
After several self-indulgent moments of enjoying the innocence of peaceful slumber, Murdoch carefully placed Johnny’s arm back in the bed. He then covered him with a lightweight blanket. Murdoch disrobed and donned his nightshirt, he crawled under his covers and before dropping off to sleep said a silent prayer that they had another good day tomorrow.
The same window, which had allowed in the moonbeams last night, ushered in the bright sun the next morning. The ray of light streaked across the room exposing everything in its path to its blinding illumination. Murdoch felt its warmth on his face as he slowly came to awareness after a restful night. As he returned to a wakeful state, he squinted his eyes against the brilliance of it on his eyelids. He shielded his eyes as he opened them to the new day.
Murdoch sat up, stretched and yawned, then took a deep breath. His nose crinkled, as he smelled urine. He looked across the bed towards the crib. Johnny was still hard and fast asleep, but sometime during the night he had flipped to his tummy. He had his apron/cape pressed against his face and his little behind was sticking up in the air, with the wet diaper exposed.
Deciding he would get dressed and then wake Johnny, Murdoch threw back the covers and rolled out of the bed. He crossed to the window and opened it about a fourth of the way. He breathed in the fresh air and his stomach rumbled as his nose caught the scent of bacon and coffee. Selena had turned out to be a fantastic cook, this morning her coffee even smelled like Mamacita’s.
The big rancher rushed through his morning washing, shaving and dressing. He was just buckling his belt when Johnny began to stir. Crossing to the crib, he greeted the baby with a cheerful smile. Before Johnny could get upset about awaking wet, he had the little boy up, stripped and standing in front of the chamber pot to try and relieve him self some more.
While Papa had him perched on the washstand, wiping him up, Johnny sniffed the air. His polka-dotted face broke out in one of his infectious smiles.
"Yummy, Johnny smell bacon. Johnny hungry."
Murdoch laughed, "Papa is to, lets hurry and get to breakfast."
They moved over to the dresser and made a game out of how fast they could get Johnny in his clothes. First came his underwear, then his socks, followed by his favorite red shirt. As luck would have it, the little boy’s much-loved brown pants were also among the clothes in Papa’s room. Murdoch frowned as he pulled the tiny pants up and saw how loose they were in the waist. Both boys had lost some weight while they were sick, Mamacita would not be pleases about that.
Johnny’s boots had been left downstairs so they would have to get those on after breakfast. Picking the toddler up from the dresser, Papa tossed him in the air and caught him just before he hit the floor. Johnny giggled at Papa’s good mood. Placing Johnny on his hip, Murdoch strode to the door unlocked it and opened it just as Ha and Scott walked out of Harlan’s room.
"Good morning." They all chorused together.
Out in the hall the enticing aroma of breakfast was even stronger, and it spurred the family’s movement towards the kitchen. They made a noisy party as they talked, laughed and clumped down the stairs. Scott was the first off the stairs and he stopped in his tracks causing Papa and Ha to have to sidestep him or run over him.
When Johnny saw what Squat had seen, he squealed and fought to get out of Papa’s arms. Sitting on the table were two colorful donkey piñatas, in between them was an empty jar and a plate with three cookies on it.
The back door opened and sunlight flooded the kitchen, revealing fine particles of iridescent dust floating in the air, then a shadow ate the light causing the glittery sparkles to disappear, as if by magic. And standing at the end of the shadow, back lit by the light in the doorway, was Mamacita.
Both boys began to jump up and down and run at the same time. Scott with his longer legs made it to Mamacita first; he wrapped his arms around her waist and held on for dear life. Johnny made his own path to Mamacita; he scrambled right up Squat’s back, like a cat up a tree. All three were laughing and crying simultaneously.
"So that’s why Cipriano asked for half a day off yesterday," muttered a stunned Murdoch.
Papa and Ha moved forward and welcomed Maria home as she and the boys clung to each other.
"Maria, it’s not that Harlan and I are not thrilled you are here, but why are you back early?"
"Lupe," was her one word reply.
"Lupe," queried the two men.
"Si, she showed up in Sonora at her Mama's house, looking like she ran all the way there babbling about ghosts, the silly girl. My sister was doing fine and would not let anyone else do anything for her nino, so I decided I was needed more here than there, so I came home."
Over a very leisurely breakfast, which began with the consumption of cookies and hot chocolate for the boys, Mamacita was filled in on the extremely long ten days of her absence. She roared with laughter over some of the antics and cringed in horror over some. She clucked and fussed about the boys' weight loss and encouraged them to eat plenty. She scolded the men for the moments of their inattention and praised them for trying and surviving.
After breakfast she shooed the men off and then spent her day with two little boys dogging her every step. When she left that evening she had to assure them with extra hugs and kisses that she would indeed be back in the morning. Papa and Ha stood with the boys out by the front door so they could see that Mamacita was just going to her and Cipriano’s little house right on the ranch grounds.
The children were allowed to play for a few minutes in the great room after their baths to help them wind down. At eight-thirty Papa and Ha escorted them upstairs, read them a good-night story, said their prayers with them and tucked them in. They hoped they were down for the night, but alas both men had traveled up the stairs several times before the two boys were able to settle down enough to fall asleep. After an hour passed with no further calls for Papa or Ha, they figured they were home free.
Murdoch Lancer trudged tiredly down the stairs. His steps so heavy and listless he briefly considered sliding down the banister. However he was an adult and he needed to practice what he preached to Johnny over and over about not sliding down banisters. He reached the bottom tread and stepped clumsily with a dull thump into the great room.
Harlan glanced towards his son-in-law and noted the absolute weariness etched in his face. Ha got up and poured a double shot of scotch and handed it to the exhausted man as he lowered his tall frame into his favorite high back chair.
"Here son, you look like you can use this."
"Thanks, I’ll take this but I have all I need now, Mamacita Maria is back from her niece’s house. Of all the worst possible times for her to be away helping with a new baby."
"Now Murdoch, there was no way for you or her to know that both boys would come down with chickenpox while she was gone. She’s home now, that’s the important thing. I must say I think she deserves a raise." A really big one thought Ha, as he absent-mindedly rubbed the fading bruise on his temple.
"No, I guess she had no way of knowing, you’re right she has definitely earned a raise." Twisting in the chair to make eye contact with Harlan as he sat on the sofa, Murdoch, out of nervous habit, rubbed a long slender finger along the side his nose. "Well, Harlan are you as happy to be home again as you were three weeks ago when we crested the rise of the south mesa?"
"Murdoch, for me home has become where ever you and those boys are, chickenpox and all. What was wrong with Johnny this time?"
"It seems he woke up, he got up and played and then decided to go back to bed. When he laid down he decided to say his prayers again." Murdoch paused to bite his lip, in an attempt to hold back his mirth. "As he was saying his prayers he became concerned that God, the Father was mean,"
"Where on earth did he get that idea?"
"That’s exactly what I asked him. According to him it’s what God does with his son in the good night prayer."
Murdoch’s eyes twinkled in amusement as he watched the confusion wash over Ha’s face as he thought over the nightly prayer.
"I’m a little addled from my most recent head injury, you’ll have to tell me how Johnny reached that conclusion. What in that prayer makes him think such a thing?"
Murdoch’s snicker turned into a belly-rumbling laugh that snatched his breath and made his limbs loose and weak.
"Well in Johnny’s version, and I quote him. Now I lay me down to sleep, angels guard me through the night and wake me with the morning light. In the name of the Father, and Son and into the hole he goes. It just plain ol’ mean to put his son in a hole"
Harlan Garrett sat staring at Murdoch; put him in any business meeting and he always knew the response to make to any question or bit of information. However, he was quite often left speechless over the perceptions and logic of a three-year old. Ha’s mouth dropped open and a glazed expression painted his face.
"You might want to close your mouth Ha, before some of Johnny’s little mosquitoes with lanterns fly into it," smirked Murdoch, as he saluted with his drink.
"Mosquitoes with lanterns?" Ha finally stuttered out.
"Yes." Murdoch grinned as a wave of silliness washed over his fatigued body, he yawned as he replied, "But that’s a story for another day."
Coming soon, Story Seven in the Lancer Brat Pack AU: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!