Disclaimer: My mind doesn’t agree with what my mouth is saying… the Lancers are not mine…now if I could just convince my fingers, which are clutching them in a vise like grip.
Author’s note: These are the Lancers you’ll find in Kit’s stories (as in, Johnny is nineteen). This falls in amongst her Paying the Piper series.
Author’s note 2: Thanks to Kit for the beta read and some excellent tweaks.
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Lips pursed as he contorted his face to get the optimum close shave from his razor, Murdoch smirked as he heard the door to his youngest son’s room slam open and the boy sprint down the hall. I wonder what excuse Johnny will come up with for not attending church this week. Chuckle. He’s thought of something different every week since being sentenced by the judge.
The bedroom door flew open after one loud thud, the solitary knock being the force that opened the door. Johnny dashed across the room and just before reaching the bed, executed a mid-air flip which catapulted him flat on his back on the mattress with a bounce.
“I can’t go to church this week,” Johnny announced, crossing his arms and placing them behind his head as he got comfortable.
The scratch of the straight razor sounded loud in the ensuing silence, as Murdoch shaved the last section of his chin. Dropping the razor in the wash basin and taking up the towel, he wiped the remnants of lather from his face as he turned to Johnny. “And why might that be, son?”
Puckering his lips in satisfaction of the totally valid excuse he had this week, Johnny fairly smacked aloud in satisfaction as he announced, “I don’t have nothin’ to wear. All my church clothes are dirty ‘cause I forgot to put ‘em in the laundry basket.” Ah hah! I got you this time old man. The excuse of nothin’ to wear always works for Teresa.
As though he had read his son’s thoughts, Murdoch replied, “Lucky you. You have a brother, and you can borrow a shirt from him.”
Shaking his head negatively, Johnny retorted, “The sleeves of Scott’s shirts are too long.” He grinned; delighted the second excuse had come to him so quickly. God, I’m gettin’ good at this!
Placing his hands on the bed, his weight causing the mattress to dip as he loomed right over Johnny’s face, Murdoch stated, “That doesn’t seem to bother you on Friday nights when you need a clean shirt to go to town.” Straightening up, he retrieved his own starched Sunday shirt and pulled it on. “We will find something in this house for you to wear; because you are going to church.” He arched his eyebrows for emphasis as his large fingers deftly worked the small buttons through their corresponding holes.
“Awwww come on, Murdoch. I’ve been every Sunday since the Judge ordered it, just one Sunday won’t hurt,” Johnny pleaded as he watch Murdoch’s precise and economical movements as he tied his tie and donned his jacket. Damn thrifty Scot is even too cheap to use more movements than necessary. Rolling over to his stomach, he started to settle into the comfort of the flannel-backed quilt.
Stepping back over to the bed, Murdoch swatted Johnny’s backside; hard. “Get up,” he ordered. “We’re going to find you something to wear to church.” He made an immediate about face and headed for the door; knowing full well Johnny would follow behind him.
Rubbing his behind, Johnny trailed in his father’s wake; his shorter legs struggling to keep up and his face furrowed in a petulant pout. He almost collided with his father as the older man pulled up at Scott’s threshold.
Murdoch called out to his elder son, holding up his hand. “Wait a minute, Scott. Your brother needs to borrow a shirt for church.”
By the time Johnny made it into the room, Scott and the Old Man were standing in front of the cedar wardrobe. Scott opened the door, reached in, and grabbed a white shirt, just like his father’s; stiff with extra heavy starch.
Scott held out the shirt for inspection. “This one should work. He’ll have to roll the cuffs up at least once.” He canted his head. “Or we could just leave them hanging over his hands, and knot them so his fingers would stay still.” Out of the corner of his eye, the blond could see the frown on his younger brother’s face; enjoying the agitation his words were causing his sibling.
“Perfect,” Murdoch declared, grabbing the shirt and handing it to Johnny. Knotting the sleeves seemed like a pretty good idea.
Too stubborn to give in so easily, Johnny piped up, “Well, I can’t wear a shirt and no pants.” He smirked, his body trembling as he fought the urge to do a little victory jig. His brother’s next words caused his body to slump with dejection.
“Not a problem,” Scott crowed, delighting in the lightning fast mood swing displayed by Johnny. “I have the wool trousers Teresa shrunk when she tried to wash them in hot water. They should be just the right size for Johnny.” Rummaging through the dresser, Scott produced the charcoal grey slacks.
“Shit! This is just fu… great.” Johnny snatched the pants and shirt from his brother’s fingers, holding them up in front of his body and catching his reflection in the cheval mirror that stood in the corner. “Now I can look just like my dull, colorless, older and stupid brother,” he muttered. Bad enough everyone expects me to act like Scott, without me having to dress like him. “I gotta wear these, I don’t want to hear nothin’ when I can’t sit still ‘cause my ass is itchin’!” Recognizing the look on his father’s face -- the Old Man was always on him about swearing -- he backed out of the door.
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The Lancer surrey pulled into the churchyard and parked under the spreading oak tree. Johnny and Scott followed on their horses. They dismounted and tied their mounts to the buggy. Barranca displayed his displeasure at being a tethered prisoner of church attendance on such a beautiful day by lifting his tail and expelling a particularly loud and smelly bit of flatulence, just as Scott approached his rear. Johnny snickered as Scott used his hat to fan his face; a smile coming as he watched his brother sniffed at his sleeve, checking to see if the stench had penetrated his clothing.
Murdoch helped Teresa down, and then took her arm to stroll towards the front of the church, Johnny and Scott bringing up the rear. As they arrived at the bottom of the steps, Scott moved ahead; just as he did every Sunday, knocking Johnny’s hat off as he passed him. As was the now established tradition, Scott was the first Lancer to enter the church, Teresa falling in line behind him, followed by Johnny, all of them being corralled and moved forward by Murdoch at the rear.
Climbing the steps, Johnny’s restless fingers dug at his shirt collar, silently damning his brother for liking heavy starch. Arriving on the small expanse of the building’s porch, the itch at his neck crawled to the seat of the wool britches. Mindless of who might be watching, he shimmied and twitched, and then tugged and pulled at the crotch of his pants.
Startled by a swat to his butt and hand, Johnny stumbled but was saved from a fall by his father.
Grabbing Johnny’s arm as he teetered, Murdoch hissed in his ear, “That is not an appropriate action to be performing on the church porch!”
Glaring at his father, Johnny whispered furiously, “I told you not to complain when I couldn’t be still for itchin’.” Switching his scratching from his pants seat to the back of his neck, the youth continued to whine. “I thought goin’ to church was ‘sposed to save you, not make you sick.”
“Shush,” Murdoch admonished as the family marched down the aisle and filed into their pew. Teresa paused before sitting to admire Aggie Conway’s new dress.
Propelled forward by his father’s guiding hand -- which was firmly planted between his shoulder blades -- Johnny plowed into Teresa. He gagged as he was almost suffocated by what appeared to be the ass-end of one of her laying hens; which was perched crazily atop her head. Unable to suppress the reflex, he began to sneeze; immediately drawing an aggravated look from Scott when he swiped the shirt sleeve across his still tickling nose.
“Sorry,” Johnny apologized; his breath coming in short pants as his face began to redden and his eyes started to water. The next sneeze was even worse than the others; a more explosive, “ACHOO” that produced a sudden sprinkle of spit. The back of Teresa’s neck was drenched.
Frowning in concern, Murdoch aided Johnny to sit as his son battled a succession of sneezes that robbed him of his breath. Pulling his handkerchief from his back pocket, Murdoch placed the clean linen in Johnny’s hand.
The tickling sensation, which had started in his nose, progressed to Johnny’s mouth. It felt like something with multiple feet was crawling across the roof of his mouth and down his throat. His nose was running and the tickle morphed into a cough.
Turning around, Aggie pierced Murdoch with her disapproving eyes. “Murdoch Lancer, why in the world did you drag this sick boy to church?” she demanded. Clearly annoyed, she searched her handbag and pulled out a small brown sack. “Here, see if these peppermint candies will soothe his throat.”
Murdoch felt a need to defend himself. Aggie was forever scolding him about his seeming lack of parenting skills. “He wasn’t ill when we left the house. This didn’t start until we got in here.” Opening the bag, he worriedly eyed Johnny as the boy sniffed, blinked rapidly and panted. Removing one of the candies, he held up it up to his son’s mouth, “Suck on this and see if it helps,” before pushing it past his lips.
The cool sensation of the peppermint helped calm the itch in his mouth or perhaps it just moved it upward because now his eyeballs felt like fire ants were crawling across them. Squeezing his eyes shut and then pressing his fingers against them, Johnny scrubbed furiously at the burning tingle; the feeling too reminiscent of desert sand and dry heat. A prickling sensation irritated his nose and, with the palm of his hand, he rubbed the tip of his nose with a circular motion; snorting as he sniffed to clear his nasal passages. The sounds of his escalating distress echoed throughout the building.
Murdoch was unaware the attention of the entire church was on his family, he was too focused on his youngest son’s deteriorating condition. He wasn’t cognizant of their curiosity until he looked up and searched around desperately for Sam Jenkins. Realizing what a distraction they were, he decided he would remove Johnny from the church, thinking perhaps some fresh air might help the boy catch his breath. Looking at his oldest son, who was studying his younger brother with concern, Murdoch motioned to the door with his head, indicating their departure.
Pushing the bag of candy into his pocket and then slipping an arm around Johnny’s waist, Murdoch whispered in his ear, “Let’s go outside and see if some fresh air will help.” Gently, he helped his son to stand, and then guided him from the pew to the aisle. He nodded as he saw Val Crawford, obviously checking to confirm Johnny’s church attendance, stop his entrance into the church to hold the door open for them.
Stumbling instinctively towards the door, Johnny was glad of his father’s help as a series of violent sneezes exploded from his nose, blinding him as he squeezed his eyes shut and covered his mouth and nose with the handkerchief. By the time they made it out onto the porch he was breathless and sunk gratefully down onto the steps, gulping desperately for air.
“What’s going on, Murdoch?” Val asked as he watched the big man loosen Johnny’s shirt collar.
“I don’t know,” Murdoch replied. “Johnny’s having some kind of sneezing attack that started when we entered the church.” He began fanning his son with his Stetson; hoping the movement of the air would relieve the boy’s distress.
“Sir, is there anything you want me to do?” Scott asked as he exited the church and squatted behind his father and brother. Teresa hovered nervously beside him.
“Arrrgghhhhh,” Johnny growled as he scrubbed at his face. “I feel like something is crawling all over my skin and it burns.”
Murdoch had given up on the fanning. “Scott, get the horses’ water bucket from the surrey and fill it, so we can see if we can cool your brother’s skin down.” Turning to Val, his hope and worry leeched through his next words, “Please tell me Sam is in his office.”
Val chewed his bottom lip and sucked at his teeth as he watched Johnny’s torment. The kid was shaking like a leaf. He hated to have to impart the bad news. “Sam is out at the Iverson’s place. It’s Sarah’s time, and you know she’s havin’ twins. I’ll be glad ta ride out and let him know you need him ta come as soon as he can.”
“Please do, Val. Tell him to come to the ranch,” Murdoch called out to the retreating back of the sheriff.
“What can I do to help?” Teresa moved in closer to her brother, hovering maddeningly close to his face; her head canted in concern. The tilting of her head was just enough to cause a flutter of feathers to dislodge from her hat.
Johnny’s predicament seemed to intensify and he threw his head back; gasping as he struggle to draw in air. A panicked look contorted his face as he swung his arms out, pushing Teresa away; his terror glazed eyes locked with his father’s worried ones, beseeching him to help.
Firmly grasping his ward’s elbow, Murdoch maneuvered her out of the way. “Teresa, please stand back and let me tend to this.”
Teresa’s protest was cut off as Scott jogged up with the bucket of water. The contents of the bucket had sloshed over the brim, leaving wet splotches on his right pant leg. Alarmed at the severity of Johnny’s condition, Scott sat the pail down and immediately dunked his clean hanky into the cold water. He didn’t bother to wring it out before mopping Johnny’s face.
Seeing the cooling effects of the water tame Johnny’s agitation, Murdoch cupped his hands; allowing them to fill before pouring it directly over Johnny’s head. “Easy now, son,” he soothed. “Breathe easy.”
Johnny sighed, as the cold wet sensation of the water eased the itching and burning to his facial skin. His relief was short lived as the torment moved to his chest and his fingers began to claw the buttons of his shirt as he attempted to remove the clothing. Cognizant of only one thing, that he wanted release from this agony and water seemed to be the solution, Johnny abruptly stood, pushed past his father and brother and dashed for the nearest horse trough.
Eyes closed, Johnny twirled and turned in the confines of the wooden channel until his lungs burned from lack of oxygen. On his final roll he opened his eyes and could make out the distorted forms of his family peering down into the trough. Unable to deny himself air any longer, he sat up with water sluicing down his face in waves, washing his hair into his eyes.
“Well, I can only hope your swim in the horse trough helped,” Murdoch grimaced, grunting as he grabbed Johnny under the arms and lifted him up, not caring he was being wet by Johnny’s dripping clothes.
Stepping out of the trough with the aid of his father, Johnny sneezed loudly and scratched at his neck, raising red welts where his finger nails dug into the skin. “It felt better while I was in the water but the itchin’ is back,” he whined, shrugging his shoulders repeatedly; trying to break the contact of the shirt cloth and his skin.
Herding his brood towards the Lancer surrey, Murdoch got straight to the point. “We’re going home so you can get into your own clothes. There’s got to be something about what you’re wearing that’s causing this reaction.”
Arriving at the buggy, Murdoch paused to assist Teresa into the backseat. As he turned around, he spied Johnny about to mount Barranca. “Johnny, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to ride your horse,” he cautioned.
“Why not?” Johnny sneezed, and then swiped at his runny nose with his wet sleeve. “I rode to town. A little sneezin’ and itchin’ isn’t gonna keep me from ridin’ back.”
Shaking his head, Murdoch held up his hand. “Number one, I don’t want you falling from your horse if you have another severe reaction like you did in church. Number two; have you forgotten what riding in wet clothes can do to a man?” He emphasized the statement with a pointed glance at Johnny’s crotch. “And number three, because your father just told you it’s not a good idea. Now get in the surrey, John,” he ordered, not one mote of compromise in his voice.
Mumbling under his breath, Johnny retied Barranca’s reins to the back of the buggy and then stomped to the front, squishing with each step. He climbed in and plopped down next to his father, taking secret delight in the fact he was wetting the old man’s clothes even more.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch poured a measure of his recently acquired and treasured Glenlivet Single Malt Whiskey. He swirled it in the glass and watched the light play off the pale gold liquid. Lifting the tumbler, he inhaled deeply; silently saluting George Smith, the man who had officially opened his distillery in 1824. Tipping the glass to his lips he sipped a portion, swishing it around his mouth as if he were testing a wine for its palatability. The taste was delicate, the effect mild and warming as it went down like silk.
“Drink,” Murdoch offered, turning from the drink cabinet as Doc Sam entered the Great room and dropped wearily onto the sofa.
The physician removed his spectacles and polished the lenses on a square of white cloth. “A drink certainly wouldn’t go amiss.” Putting the glasses back on and then taking the proffered tumbler; he studied the contents with a practiced eye. “I never thought I would see the day you would be pouring anything but Taliskers.”
Chuckling, Murdoch made a startling confession. “Taliskers pales by comparison,” he announced solemnly. “It’s the malt whiskey of last resort, and all that was available from my supplier in Sacramento.” He smiled. “That’s changed now.” He took a drink, smiling across the brim of his glass as he faced the physician. “Justice Duvalier,” he said, lowering his voice. “She obtained a bottle of Glenlivet that Scott gifted me with; and she’s used her…” his right eyebrow arched, “…special persuasive powers to assure Jess Fitzsimmons and I have steady supply at a very reasonable cost.” Settling into his favorite leather chair, Murdoch gave Sam a chance to enjoy a few sips of the topaz colored brew before asking about the results of Johnny’s checkup. “Well, what can you tell me about Johnny’s Sunday malady?”
Removing his spectacles and pinching the bridge of his nose, Jenkins replied, “As I told you Sunday night, Johnny was fine once he changed into his own clothes. Therefore, it stands to reason the cause of his affliction was his sensitivity to the wool pants and the extra starch in the shirt. He’s been fine the rest of the week according to you, Scott and him.” Putting the glasses back on, he locked eyes with his friend and added, “He doesn’t have any residual side effects, so in my medical opinion, he’ll be fine as long as he avoids the irritants that caused his Sunday malady.”
The conversation of the two older men was interrupted by the arrival of the Lancer sons into the room. The boys were cleaned up and decked out for a Saturday night in town, their pay jingling in their pockets. Murdoch eyed his handsome sons and cautioned, “Don’t be too late, boys. We have church in the morning.”
Ruffling Johnny’s hair, Scott taunted, “Correction. One of us has church in the morning. I am under no legal obligation to attend should I decide otherwise.”
Arching his eyebrows and taking another sip of his whiskey, Murdoch frowned. “Legal, no, moral, yes. All the Lancers will be attending services tomorrow; like the good Christians we are.” The stubborn set of his jaw advertised the uselessness of trying to dispute his words.
Smacking his brother in the belly hard enough to make him grunt in discomfort, Johnny snickered. “Nice try, brother.” Turning to his father, Johnny’s eyes were twinkling with mischief. The old man had made him stay in the house all day Monday to make sure he was recovered from the spell he had Sunday. While stuck in the house, he had, out of sheer boredom, pulled a book from the shelf and found the perfect excuse to escape his probation requirement of Sunday church attendance. “I can’t go to church tomorrow,” he announced.
Murdoch sighed heavily. He could tell from the anxious twitching of his youngest, the boy was up to something. Accustomed to playing the I can’t go to church game on Sunday mornings, he decided to play along; just to see what the nimble mind had come up with this week. “And why, pray tell, can’t you go to church tomorrow?”
A lively grin animated Johnny’s face, and he stretched to a taller height by lifting his heels and balancing on the balls of his feet. “It’s against my religion,” he declared.
Snorting to bite back the laugh threatening to roar from his throat, Murdoch shook his head. “We’ve already had this discussion, son. Since the Pope wasn’t available; as your father, I’ve already granted you dispensation to attend a Protestant church.”
Rubbing his hands together to keep from clapping in joy, his body trembling as he fought the urge to do an impromptu jig, Johnny announced, “I ain’t gonna be a Catholic no more. Or a Protestant. I’ve decided I’m gonna be a Jew.” The smile widened. Two things he had discovered in the book that were to his liking: Jews didn’t go to church on Sunday and they didn’t believe in Hell. “If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” His expression turned serious. “He was a Jew, too, you know.”
Sam and Scott didn’t even try to hold back their mirth. Doc Jenkins let loose a laugh that sounded like a drunken owl repeatedly screeching who. Scott was reduced to an asthmatic wheeze that threatened to rob him of his breath; and he sunk weakly to sit on the coffee table. Johnny glared at both men until his father cleared his throat, drawing his attention to back to him.
Tapping his upper lip with his index finger, Murdoch studied his peeved youngest. Clearing his throat, he decided to see just how far Johnny would go with his ploy. “I see. I assume as long as you are practicing some form of a recognized religion the Judge will be amenable to your desire for change.” He paused, letting Johnny think he had won, and then sprung his own surprise on the boy. “So instead of going to the saloon tonight, you’ll be following the dictates of your new religion and attending temple.”
“Huh?” Johnny grunted in bewilderment.
Shifting in his chair and crossing his right leg over the left, Murdoch smiled benignly as he enlightened his son. “Faithful Jews attend services on Saturday, which they consider to be their Sabbath; so I assume you will be attending temple.”
With lightning fast reasoning Johnny worked out in his own mind that this was a good thing. I can make a token appearance at the temple, and then visit the saloon. Bein’ a Jew will be way better than bein’ a Catholic or Protestant since I won’t have to drag my ass to town for church on Sunday. And no Maria fussin’ at me to go to confession or take communion. An angelic smile parted his lips as he agreed with his father. “Yep, that’s my plan alright.”
Scott panted as he worked to catch his breath and school his features to some kind of calm acceptance. “I applaud your devoutness. If you’re going to temple you better start walking; now. In fact, you might want to run the first few miles, just so you won’t be late.” It was a struggle, but he made the declarations with a straight face.
Looking at his brother like he was the dog that talked, Johnny scoffed; confusion plain on his face. “Why the Hell would I walk to town when I got a perfectly good horse?”
Knowing he was slightly misrepresenting the customs of the Jewish Sabbath to suit his immediate needs -- putting his little brother in his proper place -- Scott continued. “Observant Jews do not ride on the Sabbath.” He knew at once from the look of horror on Johnny’s face that his brother obviously had not read the part where it stated the Sabbath was observed from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
Sensing the collapse of his hastily constructed excuse, Johnny scrubbed at his face, snorting derisively. “You ask me, that’s a pain in the ass custom.” Cringing inwardly at his language, Johnny mentally prepared for his father’s blow up and lecture.
Instead, Doctor Jenkins joined the conversation. “Speaking of pain in the ass customs, you realize converting to Judaism will require you to be circumcised, don’t you? Normally a Rabbi would do the honors, but due to your age and size I’m sure they would allow me the honor.” Sam’s eyes welled with moisture as he fought to control the urge to dissolve into laughter. “You do know what it means to be circumcised, don’t you?”
Chewing his bottom lip, Johnny studied the three older men. They definitely know somethin’ I don’t. Shit, I should have read that whole damn chapter on the Sabbath and its customs! His brow furrowed as he considered his answer. I can figure this out. Scott’s always tellin’ me the root or parts of a word can give you clues about the meanin’. So…circum-size …; oh yeah, Scott said the distance around somethin’ is circumference, and size means how big or little somethin’ is…so if I have to be circumsized, I reckon they need to measure me to see how big around I am. His expression brightened. Yeah. Probably need to measure my head so’s they can get me one of them funny flat round hats for my head. Which I can wear under my Stetson. “Okay, Sam. You want to do it before we go to town?”
“Johnny,” Scott’s voice had raised several octaves higher than normal; and he caught himself to keep from falling off the coffee table, “do you realize what you’re asking Sam to do?”
Sneering at his brother, Johnny snatched his hat off and thumped the crown of his head. He wondered if his brother had taken a stupid pill. “Yeah. I’m askin’ him to measure around the top part of my head for one of them flat hats. I figured it out. Circumference is the size around of somethin’, that somethin’ bein’ my head.”
“No, Johnny,” Scott replied, shaking his head sagely, “the word is c-i-r-c-u-m-c-i-s-e, and it means to cut off.” Pausing, the blond watched as his father and Sam winced and moved their hands as if they felt compelled to protect themselves. Feeling somewhat lightheaded from the thoughts of the procedure, Scott stood; crossed the few feet to where his brother was standing, and leaned towards the younger man’s ear. He was so close the silky curls tickled his lips as he whispered the horrific truth. “You see, little brother, it’s like this. Sam will…”
Johnny’s eyes began to widen in direct proportion to the amount of detailed, gory and purposely exaggerated description Scott was imparting. His normally tanned skinned completely drained of color; then took on a rosy glow as his cheeks flushed with a mixture of shock and terror. He pushed Scott away as he shouted, “OH, HELL NO!” Jamming his hat back down on his head, he declared, “I changed my mind. We’ll be back in plenty of time for church tomorrow.” He streaked out the door.
Laughing as he retrieved his own hat, Scott winked at his father and Sam, and announced, “He doesn’t really want to be Jewish anyway, not with the long list he has already for Christmas this year.”
Murdoch saluted his clever elder son with his near empty tumbler. “You might want to let the subject drop, son. If Johnny finds out about Hanukkah and the eight nights of presents he might change his mind again.” Rising up from his chair, the older man headed back to the drink cabinet. “Home early,” he reminded as Scott headed for the front door.
Life since his sons returned was never dull.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was lucky. The sheets were clean and smelled of sunshine and lavender. The mattress wasn’t shoddy either. It was nice and plump and double sized, easily accommodating two people. Memories of the strenuous activities earlier made him appreciate the comfort of the bed even more. He snuggled down and yawned widely not even bothering to crack his eyes open; slowly drifting towards consciousness, the noise from the other rooms and hallway pulling him towards wakefulness. In the back of his mind the notion he had somewhere he had to be in the morning called out to him, but the thought floated away like leaves on swift moving water. He’d worry about the where ever later.
Johnny grinned groggily as he felt warm breath near his ear. Unless he missed his guess, he was about to get lucky yet again. Waiting for the sultry invitation to indulge in more fun, he giggled as the unseen lips seemed to move even closer, and scrunched his shoulders up to protect his neck from the tingling sensation beginning to creep down his spine. He could already feel the cramping in his toes.
His dream was shattered by an explosive voice.
“JOHNNY!” Murdoch roared, ripping the covers back, “I’ve called for you to get up twice now, and that’s after Teresa and Scott had already knocked on the door. Now get up!”
Startled, Johnny tumbled from the bed, landing at his father’s feet. He groaned as he realized his dad was wearing his highly polished, to the point you could see your reflection in them, black leather Sunday shoes. Shit, it’s Sunday…how can I get out of goin’. He groaned. Looking up, he cringed at the dark scowl on his Old Man’s face. Murdoch’s hands were clenched into fists and planted firmly on his hips. Johnny moaned again.
Leaning over and pulling his son up off the floor, Murdoch steadied the boy until he could get his sleep heavy limbs to support him. He had to resist the urge to reach out and adjust Johnny’s cut-off long johns, which were riding way too low on his slim hips.
Johnny’s stomach rumbled and growled; and he added a pitiful moan and rubbed his belly for emphasis. “I don’t think I can make it this week, Pa. I’m feelin’ kind of queasy.” He gagged for effect, knowing he could throw up on cue if need be.
Suppressing a snort over Johnny’s obvious attempt at softening up dear old dad, Murdoch was having none of it. “I’m sure your stomach will be fine once you put some food in it. You don’t want it to be growling during church.”
Blowing out an aggravated breath, Johnny went from lethargic to cranky. The soft lines of sleep fled from his face and were replaced by the puffed cheeks and narrow eyes of a full-fledged pout. “What am I gonna wear to church,” he snapped.
Amazed at the swift mood change, Murdoch chose to ignore the petulant attitude. Pointing to the chair by the window, he replied, “You’re wearing that.” His voice was stern enough not to brook any argument his son might try to make. In the seat of the chair lay a folded pair of tightly woven black cotton linen slacks, over the back, hung Johnny’s white shirt with red embroidery decorating the front plackets.
Stomping across the room, Johnny sneered at the new pants, plain and black, but at least they weren’t wool. The shirt he couldn’t complain about, it was one of his favorites, custom tailored by Maria. He snorted at the flat heeled black boots and pushed them aside with his foot. I hate them fuckin’ boots, I get more height from my stacked heel boots. He jumped, startled by his father’s voice booming from the doorway.
“Wash up, dress and get yourself downstairs for breakfast. And tomorrow, young man -- because of the attitude -- you will be cleaning the chicken coop.” Stepping out into the hallway, the tall Scot began pulling the door shut. He hesitated, just long enough to add “And don’t even think about wearing your work boots. There will be no spurs in church!”
“No spurs in church,” Johnny mimicked as he stood before the washstand. Looking into the mirror, he spoke to his reflection. “Madrid, are you goin’ to put up with that Old Man tellin’ you what to do?”
Madrid actually had the balls to laugh; his eyes twinkling as he mocked his twin. “He didn’t tell me what to do, Johnny Lancer, he told you.”
Johnny poured some water into the flowered china basin; and splashed his face. “Well, this proves the Old Man is driving me crazy,” he murmured. “I’m standing here talkin’ to myself.” And doin’ what I’m told, he mused. So much for not bein’ good at takin’ orders.
Madrid smirked at him from the mirror.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Arriving late to breakfast, Johnny had to suffer the indignity of an inspection by Maria. She clucked and fussed in Spanish as she pulled and tugged at the new pants before finally determining they did indeed fit correctly. As if Mamacita pulling at his inseam wasn’t bad enough, she also turned his hands up and checked them to make sure they were clean. He pulled away when she tried to look behind his ears.
Teresa rushed from the kitchen to finish combing her hair in a style that would accentuate her new hat. Johnny sat down at the table to eat his breakfast, while his father and brother sipped their last cup of coffee. The two older men were sharing the weekly paper, The Sacramento Times. Murdoch was browsing the business pages, checking the meat and grain prices; Scott was engrossed in a rather witty letter to the Editor.
Maria placed a plate of ham, eggs, potatoes and biscuits, which had been kept warm in the oven, in front of Johnny. Popping Johnny’s thigh with her ever present wooden spoon she implored him, “Eat quickly, niño, your Papi will not be happy if you are late to church.”
“Ouch,” Johnny complained, rubbing his stinging leg. The pain in his thigh was forgotten when he heard Scott’s breathy chuckle. He knew damned good and well his older brother was not laughing at what he was reading in the paper. Picking up his fork, he loaded it with eggs and prepared to flick it at his brother until a formidable command stopped him.
“If you’d rather play with your food than eat it, we can leave for church now. Just remember lunch is a long time off.” Murdoch’s eyes never moved from the paper in front of his face.
How the Hell, does he do that? It’s like he can see right through that damned paper. “Yes, sir,” Johnny muttered. Squinting, he studied the newsprint that was completely hiding his father’s face; searching for any holes his father might be using to spy on him.
Johnny was filling his second biscuit with strawberry preserves when Teresa flitted back into the room, her much beloved new hat perched proudly on her curls. That has to be the most ridiculous hat I’ve ever seen, Johnny snickered. All those ‘plumes’ stickin’ out of it. Hell, I don’t care what she says. It still looks like a bird’s ass, and those fuckin’ feathers have gotta be at least a foot long. It was all the youth could do to keep from laughing aloud.
Pulling his watch from his vest pocket, Murdoch flipped it open, checked the time, grunted, and then snapped it shut. He removed his reading glasses and slid them in his pocket. Rising from the table he called out to his children. “Let’s be on our way.” He marched from the room, confident his brood would follow; and they did. Only Johnny lingered a bit behind; just long enough to stuff a whole jam-covered biscuit in his mouth as he hustled after his brother and Teresa. Maria called after him; reminding him to watch his sticky fingers, her hands rising above her head as she saw Johnny swipe his palms against the seat of his new trousers.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
In a replay of last Sunday -- in fact every Sunday since the Lancers had been attending church -- the family arrived in the church yard well ahead of many of their neighbors. The surrey was parked under the oak tree, and Johnny and Scott’s horses tethered to the back. As they moved towards the building, Scott passed Johnny, knocking his hat off and then sprinting up the stairs to hold the door open for Teresa. Once again, he led the way to the Lancer pew.
Teresa strolled casually down the aisle, smiling to their friends and neighbors as she went, nodding her head in greeting. Dragging his feet so he wouldn’t plow into the back of the slow moving girl, Johnny huffed at her slow pace. Oh for Christ’s sake, speed it up, will you? Everybody has seen that ass ugly hat; it’s not like they didn’t see you wearin’ it last week.
Taking her place beside Scott, Teresa frowned when Johnny sat down next to her and promptly sneezed. She eyed him critically, trying to decide if the sneeze was real or a put on to get out of church.
Oh man, not again! Johnny raised a hand and scrubbed at the end of his tickling nose with his open palm.
Murdoch frowned in concern when Johnny sneezed a second time. He watched; his worry growing as his youngest began to fidget. Scott leaned forward and caught his father’s eye, just as confused over the developing situation.
All of a sudden Johnny’s body was wracked by repeated sneezes. His face turned mottled red, his eyes watered, and his nose ran like a wide-open faucet. Gasping for air, his mouth dropped open as he struggled to get a lungful of air. It wasn’t working. The sneezes were becoming more explosive, a wet rattle coming as Johnny fought to gain control.
Murdoch tried to help by wiping at his son’s face with a handkerchief, but that only seemed to distress Johnny more. He slapped weakly at his father’s hands, elbowing away from them as he leaned forward and grabbed the back of Aggie Conway’s pew to keep from collapsing to his knees. Fuck…there musta been a sale on those bird ass hats. Aggie’s got one too! Johnny would have laughed hysterically over the wayward thought, if he could have inhaled enough air to do so.
Terrified by his youngest son’s deteriorating health, Murdoch stood and guided the suffering boy out of the church. Assisting him to sit on the steps, Murdoch sighed in relief. The sneezing seemed to be over and Johnny was working at filling his lungs with air. This attack didn’t appear to be as bad as the one last week. “Johnny, are you itching all over like you were last week?” Murdoch inquired.
Johnny shook his head; surprised he didn’t hear water sloshing. “No,” he sniffled. He pulled the handkerchief from his father’s hand and wiped at his tear and mucus ravaged face. “All the itching is in my head, my eyes, nose, even the roof of my mouth. And it felt like someone was squeezing my throat so I couldn’t breathe.” Sniffing deeply, he gagged as the action sent drainage down his throat. He turned his forlorn eyes towards his father, shoveling on the guilt. “Told you church makes me sick.”
Sam Jenkins had been observing the father and son from the open doorway. “Nice try, young man,” he grunted out as he dropped down onto the step next to the youth. Gently, he patted his back. “There’s no doubt in my mind, from the symptoms you have presented that you are having an allergic reaction. Obviously, there’s something besides wool and heavy starch you are sensitive to.”
Scott and Teresa had just arrived on the scene. The second Teresa descended the steps and stood in front of Johnny, the sneezing attack returned full force. “Oh, you poor thing,” she murmured as she leaned in intending to give Johnny a hug of sympathy. One of the feathers on her hat raked his face and immediately a red welt appeared on his skin.
Realizing what was causing Johnny’s problem, Scott firmly grasped Teresa’s arm and pulled her away from his distressed brother. “Sam,” he exclaimed, “Did you see how that feather raised a welt on Johnny’s face?”
“Yes, I did,” Sam replied, as he took hold of Johnny’s chin and turned his face to inspect the affected area. “Johnny, have you always been sensitive to ostrich feathers?”
Johnny shrugged. “Only ostrich I ever seen is in that book Murdoch made me look at when he was tellin’ me about all the animals I ain’t ‘sposed to bring home no more.” He grinned up at his brother. “Like squirrels and stuff.” His shoulders lifted a second time, his sense of humor returning as he felt his lungs expand. “Nope. Ain’t never been around no ostrich, or their feathers.”
A loud pop sounded, as Murdoch smacked his hand against his own forehead. “Yes, he has! When Johnny was about eighteen months old, his mother and I took him on a trip to San Francisco with us. Maria bought a high fashion hat to wear to the opera that had ostrich feathers in it and the same thing happened then. We were frantic until the hotel doctor figured out what was wrong.”
Teresa was standing some distance away, patting her beloved hat a littler firmer into place. “What did he do to help him?” she asked.
Turning to his ward Murdoch made an announcement he knew was not going to be welcome. “He threw Maria’s hat away.” When he saw the look on the girl’s face, he tone became more severe. “Just like you’re going to throw that one away. The only cure to an allergy is avoidance.”
Teresa stomped her foot. “That’s not fair! It took me a year to talk you into letting me wear something more grown up than a bonnet style.” For dramatic effect she turned on the tears. “I can sit in another pew on Sunday,” she sobbed.
Murdoch shook his head. “Absolutely not. This discussion is over. You can place that hat in the poor box, it’s not going back to Lancer,” he declared, frowning at his ward’s misplaced love for a hat.
Red faced, Teresa began to remove hatpins, and then took the hat off. She stormed up the steps and Johnny sneezed as she swiped by with the hat in hand.
It didn’t help when Johnny leveled an imaginary gun at the collection of feathers and made a pretend gun, cocking the hammer with his thumb and mouthing a whispered bang. “Oh for crying out loud, T’resa,” he called out. “The hat is no great loss! From behind it looked like a bird’s ass sitting on your head,” he sassed. Instinctively, he ducked as his brother attempted to box his ears.
“She’s going to pout and make us all pay for days because of this,” Scott scolded. “Don’t make it any worse.” He watched as Teresa placed the hat in the poor box.
“Hey, Sam,” Johnny called, “any chance I might be allergic to chicken feathers too?” Boy, wouldn’t that be great! No more cleaning the coop for me.
Murdoch levered himself up from the stairs, dragging his son with him. “Give it up, young man. We tested you against all kinds of feathers when you were eighteen months old, just so we would know if there were any others you should avoid. You are still cleaning the chicken coop out tomorrow because of your attitude.” When he saw the argument forming, he amended his declaration. “And if I hear one more word about the matter, it’s going to become your weekly chore.” He lightly cuffed the boy’s chin. “Now, since you seem to be sufficiently recovered, we are all going back inside. We can sit in a back pew, and I’ll be informing Aggie of your allergy right after services.” Seeing Johnny was about to protest, Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “March,” he ordered.
Johnny’s shoulders drooped as he shuffled back into the church. He wondered, briefly, if there was any way to fake a circumcision.