The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Southernfrau (cowritten)

 

 

The Devil Made Me Do It

 

 

 

 

A 667 Production
DISCLAIMER:  It's Halloween.  Trick or Treat.  The Devil Made Me Do It
Author's Note: This is a continuation of the Halloween story Kit posted for Halloween 2009.  Many people asked for a sequel, so we decided to run an epilogue through the 667 Production machine. 

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Scott Lancer's forehead was resting against the cold steel uprights of the cell door, his head slowly rocking back and forth as he considered the possibilities of what might occur.  Hanging, of course -- what with the current mood of the angry townspeople that were milling about outside -- was certainly one of the consequences.  There was even the prospect that one of the more rabid fathers had demanded: that the miscreant be drawn and quartered, and his head mounted on a stake at the city limits.  Amongst various other body parts, best not mentioned.

Sighing, the blond pulled himself erect and wiped a weary hand across his face; rubbing a bit at his eyes.  Then, his right eye narrowing, he spoke.  Staring into the darkness beyond the bars, he asked the question.  “Just what the Hell were you thinking, little brother?”

Johnny Lancer was seated on the narrow bunk, his back against the cold brick wall, knees drawn up to his chest.  In the darkness, since he was clad entirely in black, he was almost invisible.  Except for the white socks, which seemed almost iridescent.   He risked a wary look at his elder brother.  “It is Halloween, ya know,” he drawled.  As if that explained everything.

Scott began to pace up in down before the small cage.  “I know very well what day it is, Johnny,” he gritted.  He came to an abrupt halt, deeply annoyed that he couldn't reach out and shake his younger brother senseless.  “Let's begin with the basics.  Why are you wearing our father's suit?  His new suit?”

Johnny actually had the gall to laugh.  “Needed a costume,” he snorted.  For someone who had graduated with honors from Harvard, his big brother could be pretty fuckin' stupid at times.

“A costume,” the older man echoed, the words coming whisper soft.  “You couldn't just rummage about in the attic; find some old clothes that would have been better suited?”  The volume was increasing as Scott became more agitated.

“Your fault,” Johnny muttered.

“Excuse me!?” Scott asked, his blue eyes turning to the color of cold ash.

The brunet levered himself up off the narrow bed; the fabric covering his legs easing as he hit the floor.  Only the toe-tips of his white stockings were visible now, the cuffs of the black pants spilling onto the floor.  “Well,” he began, “you were the one that told me the story,” he accused.

“What …story?”  The blond countered.

Clutching at his pant legs and trying to pull up the excess fabric, Johnny shuffled across the floor, coming into the small crescent of pale light that radiated from the single lantern hanging on the far wall.  He was very careful not to get close to the door.  Scott had really long arms and he wasn't about to risk getting within the man's reach; not when he was lookin' like he was out for blood.   “That story about the Headless Horseman,” he answered.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny Lancer stood with his hands clasped behind his back, looking for all the world like he was actually paying attention to what his father was saying.  It was All Hallow's Eve, his first one at Lancer.  Teresa, of course, had decided a party was in order; and in less than an hour the first guests would be arriving.

As usual, Murdoch Lancer had summoned his sons to the Great Room.  The Old Man had a real thing about lecturing his boys regarding what was expected of them when Lancer entertained; and the sermons were particularly long when it was one of Teresa's fandangos.  He sat behind his desk, a tumbler of Glenlivet in his right hand, both sons standing at near attention before him as he dispensed the rules.  “This party is important to your sister,” he began.  “It's been a tradition since she was quite small; a time to bring together the young people from the valley for some good natured fun.  There will be dancing, some entertainment, a costume contest, some games, and …”

The brunet perked up at the and .  “…drinkin'?” he piped up.

Murdoch eyed his youngest.  “The drinking tonight will be limited to cider,” he answered, “ apple cider and punch.”  When he saw Johnny's quick smile, he continued.  “Plain punch,” he declared pointedly.

Johnny's head dipped against his chest, and he stole a look at his elder brother.  Scott was trying hard not to smile.  It was obvious his brother was remembering the spring social at Green River's church.   “Sounds kinda borin',” he ventured.  The vision of Teresa and several of her friends totally soused after drinking spiked lemonade danced across his mind.  The hangover, however, had been a bitch.  So had T'resa.

As if he could read his boy's mind, Murdoch came forward in the chair, his right eyebrow arching.  When he spoke, each word was precisely enunciated and punctuated with a solid tap of his forefinger.  “There will not be a repeat of the disastrous debacle that occurred last spring.  Understood?”

The word debacle caused a small frown to appear on Johnny's face, and he filed the word away with the thought he would ask Scott later what the hell it meant.  He felt a sudden jab at his ribs, left side, and knocked his brother's elbow away.

“Understood!?” Murdoch repeated, this time a bit louder.

“Huh?”  Johnny lifted his head to face his father.  Seeing the frown, he quickly recovered.  “Oh, yeah,” he nodded.  The scowl on Murdoch's face deepened.  “Understood.”  Pause; just in case the one word was enough.  It wasn't.   “Sir.”

Murdoch's eyes narrowed.  He had a sneaking suspicion that his youngest son, as usual, had not been paying attention.  Sighing, he decided to be satisfied with as much as he got.  “The party will be over by midnight.  Some of Teresa's friends will be staying in the annex rooms overnight.  You will both be present tomorrow morning for breakfast.”

Johnny was getting restless under the relentless scrutiny.  “So we can go now?” he asked, fidgeting.

“Go,” Murdoch said.  Even through the closed doors at the entranceway, he could hear Teresa greeting some of her guest.

The brunet immediately took off, surprised when he heard his brother's voice behind him.  Stopping dead in his tracks, he turned back.

Scott was still standing in front of the Old Man's desk.  “And will you be joining us, sir?” he asked.

Murdoch pushed back his chair and stood up.  “No, son,” he answered.  He smiled across at his oldest boy.  “Tonight, I'm going to leave you in charge.  I'm going to have a quiet dinner at Aggie's, and if I time things right, I should be getting home just about the time Teresa's party is over.”

Johnny stood aside as his father approached him; relishing the man's touch, the gentle pat on his shoulder as he passed him by, but still feeling a bit resentful.  Dinner, my ass, he fumed.  And why the hell is Scott going to be the one in charge?

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Scott had just finished reading an abbreviated version of The Headless Horseman.  He'd done a bang up job, Johnny thought; and it sure had impressed all of Teresa's friends.  ‘Specially all them girls.  He sighed.  Now that the story was done, the party had returned to normal.  Boring.

“So, you think we got a chance of gettin' lucky?”  Ned Simmons had just come up on Johnny's right.  He had a full mug of cider in his right hand, but he wasn't drinking.  At least not the spiced apple juice Maria had prepared.

Johnny's nose was twitching, and he ignored the question.  He recognized the smell right away.  “You got a bottle?” he asked.

“Do bears shit in the woods,” the twin answered.  He waggled his fingers at his brother, Tim.

“And we're standin' here why?” Johnny asked. 

Tim Simmons had sauntered over to join his friends.  “Scott and Reese are takin' everyone outside for the costume contest and the dancin',” he said.

The brunet took a long look in his brother's direction.  Scott was opening the doors leading to the patio, ushering the party-goers out in an orderly fashion; two by two, Reese Simmons following behind.  Must be how they do it in Boston, the younger man mused.  He made eye contact with his elder sibling, and knew what his brother was expecting.  “We'll have to go out there,” he said, nodding in Scott's direction.  “At least for awhile.”

“I ain't dancin',” Ned snorted.  “Least wise, not with those prissy ass females.”

Tim laughed and punched his brother's arm.  “Molly Pritchard didn't like you feelin' her up when we were out there dunkin' for them apples?”

Ned's face turned bright red.  “I wasn't feelin' her up!” he snapped.  “She got kinda a close when we were bobbin' ,” he couldn't resist the urge to correct his brother's mistake, “for apples, and it ain't my fault her tits got in the way!”

Scott Lancer was still standing at the open French doors.  “Johnny,” he called.  He opened the left hand door wider and made a sweeping gesture with his right hand.  “Now.”

Johnny sucked up.  “C'mon,” he said, nodding towards his brother.  “May as well get it over.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The patio was hung with paper globes that had been fashioned to look like jack-o-lanterns; the candles flickering in the breeze.  Pete Tyree, a new hire from Texas, was fiddling up a storm, and Reese Simmons was having a high old time calling the square dancing.  Teresa had even managed to convince Scott to join the dancers.  The thump of shod feet caused the plank dance floor to vibrate, and the air was filled with the sound of good-natured laughter and high-pitched squeals.

Johnny watched as the merry-makers began yet another series of do-si-do's.  Then, turning to his companions, he nodded towards the patio gate.  Together, the three youths backed into the darkness.  With a final look to assure that their elder brothers were not watching them, they headed for freedom.

Sprinting three abreast, the boys headed for the barn.  They entered the building in tandem, pausing just inside to catch their breaths.  Ned Simmons was the first to speak.  “So now what?” he asked.  Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out a small flask.

Johnny grabbed the tin and took a healthy snort; grimacing as the corn liquor burned across his tongue.  “Whoa!  Where the hell did you get that?”

“Jimbo Tucker,” Ned laughed.  “He's got a still back behind his shack.  Bottles the stuff, labels it and sells it to the Widow Hargis for cough medicine.”

The brunet laughed.  The Widow Hargis was a teetotaler who constantly campaigned to stamp out demon rum.  “No shit.”  He was quiet a moment.  “All that stuff you were tellin' me about Halloween…”  Johnny had no experience with the holiday; at least not how it was celebrated north of the border.  Mexico had their Day of the Dead, but it was nothing like what the twins had told him about.

Tim had wrestled the flask away from his brother.  He was more cautious in his drinking than Johnny.  “We do a bunch of stuff,” he confessed.  “Hit Green River, dump over a few outhouses.”  He leaned forward to wink at his brother.  “Heisted Mayor Higgs fancy buggy last year, took it apart and put it back together atop the Silver Dollar, behind the false front.”

Ned was actually giggling.  “And then we filled the front seat with pig shit!”

Another guffaw from Tim.  “And put Widow Hargis' drawers up on windows of the whore house.”  He felt a need to explain.  “She hangs ‘em outside to dry at night, so's no body can see ‘em.”

Johnny was impressed.  “And this year?”

Both twins visibly slumped back against the barn wall.  “The Old Man said we had to come to Teresa's party,” they said in unison.

The twins did that a lot , Johnny mused, said the same thing at the same time .  He was thinking, hard.  “So we need to do something really big this year,” he said aloud.

Ned had just emptied the flask.  “Val Crawford,” he said; just the two words.

“Yeah?” Johnny asked.

“Green River didn't have no sheriff last year,” Tim answered.

“So?”

That got the twins attention.  “You got a plan?” they asked in unison.

“Headless horseman,” Johnny replied.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

As a team, the three youths worked really well together.  The first thing to do was find a costume.  Johnny figured that one out in a heartbeat.  He made a quick trip into the hacienda , and when he returned, he was carrying his father's brand new, made-to-order suit, and the just as new pair of high boots.

Their first thought was to stuff the suit full of straw and then strap it to one of the horses; but it soon became clear that wasn't happening.  Using Barranca would have been a dead giveaway, even if Johnny could have convinced the palomino to co-operate; which he couldn't.  So they decided on the next best thing.

Johnny would wear the suit.  They'd rig it just enough stuffing to make sure the long coat would extend well up over the top of his black hair.  The Old Man's boots were bulky as hell, and in the end, when they decided Johnny would ride the black gelding Scott had just acquired; they had to put the boots on after he had mounted.

“Shit!”  Johnny muttered from beneath the coat.

“What?” Ned hissed.

Johnny lifted his right hand to unfasten a button so he could actually see.  “I don't know if I can make it into Green River rigged up like this.”

Tim swore.  “Fuck!”  Then, brightening, he looked up at his friend.  “We could do it here,” he said.

Ned punched his brother.  “Scott'd know right off it was us, asshole.  And Reese'd be all over us like flies on a pile of cow shit!”

Johnny shifted a bit in the saddle.  “Green River,” he said determinedly.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The ride to Green River was a leisurely affair, considering.  It was close to midnight when they arrived just at the edge of town.  Pulling up, the twins dismounted and began taking inventory.

“Jack-o-lantern,” Tim whispered.

Ned hefted the large pumpkin they had heisted from the collection Teresa's guests had brought to the party.

“Candles.”

There was a sound as Johnny shifted in the saddle; leather squeaking as he made himself more comfortable.  At least as comfortable as he could be with the damned suit, the straw packing scratching his skin; and the over-sized boots.  “Won't work,” he said.  “The candles.  Wind'll blow ‘em out while I'm ridin' down the street.”

Tim thought about it for awhile.  Then, reaching back into his pants pocket he produced the full flask he had kept hidden from his brother and his friend.  “So, we soak a rag in this, light it afire…”

Ned was impressed enough with his brother's idea he didn't even call him to task for withholding the liquor.  Quickly, he pulled the red bandana from his front pocket and crumpled it up; knotting it several times before handing it up to Johnny.

The brunet waggled his fingers at Tim.  When his amigo handed him the flask, he took a brief pull, and then dumped the remainder into the pumpkin atop the piece of cloth.  “Here's the plan,” he said, handing the now empty container back.  “You two ride in ahead of me, hollerin' like all holy Hell that somethin's after you.  I'll wait a bit, and follow you on in.  Then, turn around, and head back this way again.  I'll be right on your ass.”

The Simmons' boys exchanged a long glance.  Then, excitedly, they mounted their horses.

Kicking their horses into a full run, the two youths tore down the main drag yelling at the top of the lungs.  Johnny kept a tight rein on the black gelding, no easy thing with the pumpkin in his arms.  He jerked the horse up tight, forcing it into a tight circle until he regained control; grinning as the batwing doors on the Red Dog slammed open, other doors up and down the street swinging open.  Lights began appearing in the windows of the upper rooms above the other buildings that lined the main street.  Johnny watched in amusement as Val Crawford stumbled out of his office; and then, with one hand, he struck the match and dropped it inside the pumpkin.

There was a whoosh as the pooled liquor at the bottom of the jack-o-lantern flashed a bright blue that nearly singed the youth's eyebrows.  Almost immediately, the soaked bandana caught fire, and he kicked the horse into a run.

Just as he instructed, the twins made it completely through the town.  He galloped behind them at a full run, the lit jack-o-lantern glowing warm beneath his right arm.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Val Crawford swiped a broad hand across his face.  He couldn't believe what he was seeing.  Barreling down the middle of the main street were two horsemen screaming at the top of their lungs, a third idiot behind them carrying a brilliantly lit jack-o-lantern.  And the idiot didn't appear to have a head.

All up and down the street, he could hear the screaming.  Men, women; small, terrified children that had been roused from their beds.  And then he saw the Widow Hargis.

The feisty little old woman was on her front porch; dressed in her nightgown and wearing a ruffled cap.  She was carrying a shotgun; a sawed-off greener.

“Sweet Jesus,” the lawman cursed.  He headed for the old woman, bulling his way through the crowds that had gathered.  Behind him, he could hear the sounds of the two horses again, now running in the opposite direction.  And once more, right on their tails, the headless horseman.

Kabooom! 

Val reached the Widow Hargis just as the woman was knocked ass backwards onto the boardwalk, the smoking shotgun still clutched firmly in her hands.  Reaching down, he lifted her to her feet; sucking in when the barrel of the greener whispered against his stomach.  “Ma'am,” he growled.

“Unhand me, you fool!” she shouted.  Still shaking, the old woman reached up with her free hand to adjust her glasses, which were now sidewise on her nose.

Val raised both hands and backed up; just in time to see the still lit pumpkin fly through the air and right through the window of the Silver Dollar. “Oh, shit!” he cursed.  Without an apology or another thought about the old woman, he sprinted across the street.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny Lancer was afoot; but not by choice.  Several pieces of rock salt had peppered the black's ass end, and in retribution, the gelding had sunfished and dumped its rider in the middle of the street.  The young man had been unable to tuck and roll, and he belly-flopped into the packed caliche; the wind knocked out of him.  Bits of straw were scattered in the street where he lay.  He looked up just in time to see the Widow Hargis coming in his direction.

Clambering to his feet, Johnny took off at a clumsy pace; his father's too big boots and long pants hampering his efforts.  He stumbled, twice, and then managed to duck into the alleyway; the Widow Hargis in hot pursuit.

The brunet looked over his shoulder to find the old woman closing in.  It was an incredible thing, watching the widow running after him.  She was still carrying the double barreled shot gun, and in spite of her burden, managed to hike up her night gown almost to her knees so that she could run even faster.

Johnny turned his attention back to the dark alleyway.  As he ran, he grabbed at the doorknobs of the various buildings he passed; just quick enough to realize the doors were locked.  Then, making a sharp right, he saw it.  Mayor Higgs' privy .

Gasping for breath, Johnny yanked open the door and hurried inside.  He slammed it shut.  Almost giddy with the rush of adrenalin that surged through his body; he felt his senses expand.  Everything within him stirred; even his vision improved, and in the dim light from the small window high above his head he could see everything within the small outhouse.

Two holer, he marveled.  Probably what it took to accommodate the mayor's fat ass. Nice supply of corncobs.  Catalog. 

And then he heard it.  The distinctive click of a shotgun being cocked.

Jumping up onto the knee-high bench, Johnny grabbed at the rafters.  He was just in time.  The shotgun went off; the bottom one third of the privy door splintering as the rock-salt cut into the warped planking.

“Goddamnit, Mizz Hargis,” Val cursed tiredly.  Once again, he lifted the old woman up from the dirt. 

“Oh, my,” she breathed, surveying the damage to the outhouse door.

Val relieved the woman of her shotgun.  Tucking the weapon under his left arm, he stepped forward and opened the outhouse door.

“Hey, Val.”  Johnny was still standing atop the two seater.  Sort of.  His left foot appeared to be stuck; in the right-hand hole.

“Boy, you get your sorry ass down from there, AND YOU DO IT NOW!!”

Easier said than done, the youth thought.  He tried pulling his left foot free; only to know the frustration of losing his boot.  His father's boot.  He heard it hit bottom; the sickening plop as it landed atop the mass of human waste.  Shaking his head in total resignation, he stepped down to the plank floor.

“Might as well shuck the other one,” Val advised, nodding at the over-sized boot on the younger man's right foot.

Figuring it wasn't going to make any difference in the long run, Johnny did as he was told. 

Vindictively, Val reached into the outhouse, picked up the discarded boot and unceremoniously dropped it down the same hole that had consumed the other.  “I hope your Old Man makes you fish ‘em out,” he growled.  He gestured towards the alleyway with a single jerk of his head.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

“Our father's brand new suit, AND his boots?” Scott roared.

Johnny held up one hand; one finger, the usual one he displayed when he was annoyed with his brother.  “ One boot,” he said.  “Val tossed the other one in.”  Like that was goin' to make a difference.

Scott was shaking his head.  “Where are the twins?” he ground out.

The younger man shrugged.  “How the hell do I know?” he shot back.  “It was just me.”

It was Scott's turn to hold up a hand.  Three fingers.  “Val said there were three of you.”

“It's Halloween.  He was probably just seein' things.” Johnny snapped.

“Right.”  The elder Lancer son's mood was getting grimmer by the minute.  “I'll pass that on to Reese.  He rode in with me.”

Both young men turned as they heard the door leading to the front office open.  Scott took a deep breath and nodded in greeting.  “Sir.”

Murdoch stepped down into the corridor; Val right behind him.  The skin beneath the tall Scot's right eye was twitching.  Not a good sign.  “And this is what happens when I leave you in charge?” he growled.

Scott's head snapped up.  Biting back the words he wanted to say, he chose the wiser course and soldiered on.  “I can assure you, sir, the next time you leave me to supervise my baby brother,” his eyes swung to his sibling, “he'll be begging Maria to take him in hand.”

The older man's lips quirked up in a near smile.  And then he turned to his youngest.  “My suit!” he snarled.  “My new suit??”

Johnny was backing away from the cell door; far away from the cell door.  Not that it was going to do any good.  Val was already unlocking the door.

Grinning, the lawman turned to face the Lancer patriarch.  “Might just want to ask him about your new boots, too.”

Epilogue

Murdoch Lancer was in the lead.  He strode across the front courtyard and slammed through the front door.   Turning to stand in wait for his offspring, he pulled himself to his full six-foot-five; his back ramrod straight.  When Scott started by him to head for the Great Room, the big man's right arm shot out; barring the way.  With his other arm, he pointed to the stairs.  “Upstairs!” he ordered.

Wisely, Scott changed course.  He could feel Johnny right behind him.

Surprisingly, the brunet was faltering.  Still clad in his father's over-sized pants and in his stockinged feet, he was having a difficult time navigating the stairs.  Finally, throwing up his hands, he gave up and faced his irate father.  “You know you're gonna holler,” he said, nodding towards the Great Room.  “Might as well get it over with...”

The blond stopped on the third step from the bottom and turned slightly; expectant.  He was visibly surprised when the anticipated storm was not forthcoming.

Murdoch was glaring at his youngest; his jaws working as he struggled to control the urge to strangle his son and heir.  Johnny looked like a poorly clad scarecrow, only the tip of his index fingers showing beneath the sleeves, the tails of the oversized coat almost reaching his knees.  The ripped and torn knees.  Certain he was about to develop a sudden case of apoplexy, the older man took a deep breath, almost whispering when he finally spoke.  “It is two-thirty in the morning, John.  In three,” he held up the appropriate digits, repeating the word, “ three hours I'm going to be up to start yet another very long day.  I am not in the mood right now to talk about your most recent peccadillo.”  He inhaled a second time, the next words coming a bit louder.  “However, come breakfast, I can assure you I will be more than ready to discuss not only what has occurred, but just how I intend to deal with the matter.  Now go to bed!”

The mere mention of food was enough to set the younger man off.  That, and the rather grim realization he was going to have to wait to find out just when and by what means his father was going to send him to Hell.   “So you ain't even goin' to ask about your boots?”

Scott reached out and grabbed his younger brother by the ear; not caring that he had also snatched a considerable amount of hair.  Without so much as a by your leave or an excuse me, he pulled the youth with him as he double-timed up the stairs.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Breakfast was a grim affair; silent except for the clatter of silverware against china.  The fact that Teresa's friends from Green River were already being picked up by their irate parents had put the girl in a major snit and if looks could kill Johnny would already be laid out in the parlor waiting for the preacher.  Finally, she flounced out of the room, loudly declaring that it would be a very, very long time before her adopted brother ever saw as much as a crumb of chocolate cake; and that she was never speaking to him again.

The part about her not speaking to him suited Johnny just fine.  The part about the chocolate cake, however, was a cause for major concern.

Scott was now on his third cup of coffee, but it wasn't the caffeine that was making him antsy.  Murdoch -- who was reading the week-old copy of the Sacramento Bee -- was quiet; far too quiet.  And Johnny…

Johnny was picking at the food on his plate like he was sure and certain Maria had secretly dosed his food with one of her infamous cure-alls in retaliation for all the trouble he had caused.  He didn't even want to think what kind of revenge she was going to take for the damage he'd done to Murdoch's brand new suit.  Finally, he shoved the still full plate away.  Scooting his butt forward in his chair, he reached out his with his right leg and tapped his brother's shin with the toe of his boot.  Once he had his brother's attention, he jerked his head in their father's direction; twice.

The blond instinctively knew what his younger brother wanted.  Shaking his head at the misery that was clearly written on his sibling's face he decided to help instead of retaliate for yesterday's mischief.  “Sir,” he began, “about today's work assignments?”

Murdoch lowered the newspaper to gaze over the top of his glasses at his elder son.  “I think today would be a good day to those two milk cows back down to the main barn; separate them from their calves.  Those heifers should have been weaned a month ago,” he hesitated as Maria refilled his coffee cup, smiling at her I told you so harrumph, “as Maria has been telling me.”  Without another word, he went back to his reading.

Scott's face registered a brief modicum of surprise that just as quickly faded.  He took another long drink of coffee and then carefully placed the cup back onto the china saucer; shrugging slightly as he caught his younger brother's eye. 

Johnny couldn't take it any longer.  Not one fuckin' word from the Old Man about what had happened last night.  It just wasn't… normal.   He cleared his throat.  “So when you gonna start yellin'?”  he asked.

Feigning ignorance, the big Scot never even looked up from his paper.  “About what?” he asked absently.  The paper rattled as he turned the page.  “You and your brother have cows to move.”

Not about to question what was happening -- or, in this case, was not happening -- Scott immediately got up from his chair and signaled for his brother to join him.  When Johnny hesitated, he grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the table.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Val Crawford's bay gelding was more cantankerous than usual; the animal's mood matching the lawman's.  It didn't help the gelding's disposition that the horse Johnny had ridden the previous night -- Scott's new black -- was reluctantly trailing behind.  The fact the horse's ass end was still smarting from not only the load of rock salt that had peppered its behind, but the ointment Val had applied, made the animal even more fractious.  Every few paces the compact black would stop dead still and kick up its rear legs; morphing into a series of crow-hops and ending its performance by taking a swipe with its teeth at whatever was closest.  The final display of equine bad temper occurred just as the lawman pulled up in front of the Lancer hacienda ; this go-round resulting in an open-mouthed attack on Val's right thigh.  Removing his Stetson, the lawman swatted the black's nose with his hat, not once but three times.

“I believe, Val,” Murdoch's deep voice resonated into the late morning quiet, “it was Scott's intention to turn that horse into a roping pony.  You continue to swipe at him with your hat,” he pointed with the stem of his pipe, “he's going to be more than a tad head shy.”  He was smiling when he said the words.

Val snorted.  He dismounted and looped the lead rope around the hitching rail.  “I was considerin' shootin' him,” he declared, “just as I was passin' under the arch.”   With his right hand, he finger-combed his thick, dark hair; turning aside to drape his Stetson over the saddle horn before turning back to face the rancher.  He gave Murdoch a long look, and then asked the question.  “So, where'd you hide the body?”

Murdoch laughed.  “I haven't killed him.”  He gestured towards the pasture where Johnny and Scott were still trying to separate the spotted heifers from their bellowing mamas.  “Yet.”

The lawman shaded his eyes with his hand, a slow smile coming as he watched an obviously pissed-off Johnny Lancer give chase to one of the calves.  The rope-wise heifer was as agile as spring chamaco (baby goat); all four feet off the ground as it crow-hopped across the pasture.  “You know he hates those damned Guernseys even more than he hates that Mexican longhorn steer you keep as a pet.”

Murdoch's self-satisfied smirk was evident even as he clenched the stem of his pipe between his teeth.  He inhaled; a halo of blue smoke coming, the air filled with the scent of apples and cinnamon.   “Which is precisely why Johnny has just been appointed the chore of doing the milking for Maria.”  He pulled the pipe from his mouth, and pointed the stem towards the house.  “I'll have Mateo see to the horses.  Drink?”

Val nodded, and fell in beside the man.  He patted his shirt pocket.  “You're goin' to need one, Murdoch.  I got the tally for the damages.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Scott slapped his brother's hand away; hard.  “No,” he declared, shaking his head; his glove right hand firmly locked around the well-polished stock of his Henry.  “You can not use my rifle!”

Johnny was shaking his hand, his fingers smarting.  “And why the hell not?”  He jabbed a rigid forefinger in the general direction of the palomino-spotted heifer that was running across the pasture with his thirty-foot reata trailing in the long grass behind it.  “You got any better idea for catchin' her?”

The blond was shaking out his own rope.  “The key word here is ‘catch' ,” he said, using what was left of his fraternal patience.  “Watch and learn.”  With that, he nudged Cheval forward.

Hands on his hips, Johnny watched as his brother made the toss.  “Fuck!”

Grinning widely, Scott pulled up the slack, his lariat neatly settled over the horns of one of the adult bovines.  Placidly chewing her cud, the cow moved forward, one plodding step after the other.  Ten feet into her journey behind the man and his horse, her calf joined her.  Scott tipped his hat to his brother as he passed him by.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

“Whitewash?” Murdoch asked, tapping the slip of paper with his finger.

Val was sitting in the chair usually occupied by Scott; the one to Murdoch's right, in front of the large desk.  He nodded.  “Didn't notice it until this mornin',” he said, rolling the empty drink tumbler back and forth between his palms.  “Little shit wrote his name on the wall of the cell with piss; even managed to dot the ‘i'”.  He wrote in the air with the glass.  “Johnny Madrid Lancer. The kid had a lot more to drink than the apple cider Maria poured at the party.”

Murdoch's response to the lawman was stalled by the sounds of a scuffle in the front hall.  He leaned forward, elbows resting on the desk.  Val had turned slightly in his chair, smiling as he watched the horseplay.  Scott had Johnny in a headlock, and was rubbing the knuckles of his right hand vigorously against the top of his brother's head.

“Instinct, brother,” he laughed, letting go and ducking as Johnny took a swing at him.  “Even a ‘stupid joder bovina' (fuckin' bovine) knows to follow its food source.”

That brought Murdoch to his feet and around the desk in a heartbeat.  “Boys.  We have company.”  His tone was anything but cordial, though he was hard pressed not to let amusement ruin his stern expression when he noted his oldest looked much the way he had first thing this morning at the breakfast table, while his youngest looked like he had had been riding drag for days on end in a sandstorm. 

Val tipped his head in Johnny's direction and stood up.  “Question now, Murdoch, is Johnny goin' to be paintin' the wall in the holdin' cell, or am I going to have to hire it done?”

Noting the veiled vengeance in Val's clipped question, Johnny turned his attention to the two older men.  He gulped at the way they were sizing him up. He was sure the scruffy Texan was planning to shoot him for his latest mischief.  Visions of Val deciding to save the bullet and just bury him alive assaulted him.  His father, with the mood he had been in lately about the cost of his ‘malicious mayhem', would probably chuck him in the grave without a coffin, and to save even more money the damn thrifty Scot would make him wear the suit he claimed was ruined.

Suddenly the Great room seemed to be the smallest room in the house and Johnny's instinct for fight or flight kicked in.  At times like these he cursed his bad luck for not having been gifted with the size and height of his father and brother.  And Val, well… he could be meaner than a suck egg mule chewing thistles.  If ever there was a time to flee this was it. 

Backing up a step, Johnny cringed and scrunched his shoulders as he felt Scott's hot breath on his neck.  There would, he realized, be no -- what did Scott call it? -- strategic withdrawal.  Quickly executing a side step, he was dismayed to see Maria flanked him.  She was blocking the kitchen doorway, wooden spoon raised, poised to strike.  Subconsciously, his hand moved to protect his behind.  He licked his lips nervously as he resigned his self to the fact the only possible way out was to run head on through the narrow path between his father and Val.  He had youth, speed and agility on his side, not to mention an extreme desire to survive unscathed. 

In less than a second, Johnny went from twitching in place to a blur of motion. He would have made good on his escape except for one minor detail, he forgot to factor in the long arms of the two older men.  His flight was abruptly halted as Murdoch hooked his left arm and Val his right; the action jerking him to a full stop and lifting his feet from the floor.  Together, Val and Murdoch hoisted their captive, and deposited him in the chair directly in front of the ornately carved desk.

The lecture lasted for an hour.        

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

The ear and ass chewing Johnny had endured from his father and Val had been nothing compared to the indignity he was suffering now. His father was personally escorting him around town to make repairs and amends for his actions.  He didn't know how the Hell he would ever live this down, being supervised by his father like some fucking snot nosed kid who didn't have any damn better sense than to walk behind a cow with the scours or run out in front of wagons. Just thinking about it made Johnny tense with resentment, causing the handsaw he was using to wobble, bow and hang up as the teeth bit into the wood plank he was cutting to repair Mayor Higgs' outhouse door. Pausing, Johnny wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shirt sleeve and glared at his father and Higgs.  The two older men were sitting on a pair of matching benches on the Mayor's back porch sipping apple cider, smoking cigars and chatting like two old friends. Smug, fat assed bastard, Johnny fumed, eyeing the mayor.  He ought to make old Widow Hargis pay someone to repair this fuckin' door; she's the one that shot it full of holes.

“Johnny, you'll get a lot more done if you concentrate on your work instead of staring off into space,” Murdoch called across the yard. He sipped his cider, the raised mug hiding his bemused grin.  He was well aware his son was glaring not staring.

Shaking his head so hard his meaty jowls jiggled, Mayor Higgs offered his two cents.   “That's the trouble with young boys today, they don't want to hit a lick of work; just waste all that God-given energy doing the Devil's mischief!” He cast a disapproving and accusing eye towards Johnny; drawing himself up in all his pompous glory.  “If he were my son, he'd be wearing some stripes on his backside from my razor strap. The time to rein them in is when they're young.” Pausing to take a gulp of apple cider, the slovenly man dribbled the juice down his chin and swiped the liquid with a dingy handkerchief. “The Bible and common sense tells you spare the rod and spoil the child,” he chuffed, continuing the sermon.

Murdoch grunted. Common sense!  This from a man with no better sense than to keep his store's cash profits in a cigar box instead of the bank. Frowning, Murdoch tightened his grip on the mug of cider and fought the urge to throttle the Mayor. If there was one thing that absolutely rubbed him the wrong way, it was being told how to handle his sons, especially his youngest. Nodding his head at intervals to imply attentiveness, Murdoch blissfully tuned out the Mayor's harping.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

The sound of Johnny's hammering pulled Murdoch from his ruminations. He was rather startled to see his son had assembled the new outhouse door while he was wool gathering; and was now hanging it. Taking a sip of the now warm cider, he snorted and nearly choked on the juice when he realized Higgs' was still blathering about proper child rearing. Scott's right, he sighed.  Higgs' is nothing more than a pompous, self aggrandizing windbag; the fool doesn't even realize I'm not listening.

Johnny swatted at the flies buzzing around his face as he shut the newly hung outhouse door; nodding in satisfaction of the flush fit of the door to the frame. Dropping his hammer into the carpenters' tool box at his feet, he bent over; grimacing in anticipation at the weight he knew was coming.  A call from his father distracted him, and he turned to face the Old Man.  His shoulders slumped. Here it comes…more fuckin' tune callin'! 

Gesturing towards the outhouse with his cigar, Murdoch's lips parted in a toothy smile.  “You've done an admirable job repairing the damage you caused,” he paused to take a puff from his cigar, the pale blue-grey smoke briefly floating above his head, “but you're not finished, young man.  There's still the matter of my boots.”

Johnny's arms shot up into the air as though controlled by some unseen marionette strings.  Just as quickly they fell again, his hands slapping loudly against the sides of his thighs.  He didn't even attempt to keep the whine out of his protest.  “Awwww…come on, Old Man,” his nose crinkled in disgust, “they've been down there two days now.  It don't make no sense pullin' ‘em up out of the muck.”  Who the Hell wants a pair of shit kickers fished out of the shithouse?

Mayor Higgs pulled his considerable bulk up from his place on the bench, the wood seeming to sigh in relief.  Waving his arm towards the privy -- the abrupt movement causing cider to slosh out of the mug and over his bloated hand -- the Mayor protested.  “No one has used that outhouse since Halloween.  How could we with holes in the door? We've been using the public outhouse.”

Frowning briefly at the Mayor's interruption, Murdoch addressed his boy. “We won't know that until you retrieve them,” he observed, knowing full well the boots were a lost cause.   It was, after all, the principle of the thing; the need to make Johnny responsible for what he had done.  “And if they are ruined, the cost to replace them will come out of your monthly wages.” He flicked the ashes from the end of his cigar. End of discussion. 

Chewing nervously on his bottom lip, Johnny went stock still as he carefully studied his father's face and eyes. He groaned inwardly as he reluctantly accepted the signs his old man's heels were dug in and -- as big brother, Scott, would say -- ‘resistance was futile.'  A little snort escaped as Johnny momentarily wondered how his father would react if he resorted to the same tactics little Pedro had tried the other day: throwing his self down on the ground, beating the packed earth with his fists and heels, while screaming at the top of his lungs.  He came to his senses as lingering visions of the high stepping jig the little boy danced as his mother applied a limber switch to his legs forced the realization his own father would probably resort to the same measures.

Angrily grabbing the box of tools, Johnny grunted at the spasm of pain that shot through his shoulder as the weight pulled at his arm; the fact he hurt his self acerbating the ire threatening to consume him. Slamming the door to the outhouse open, he dropped the box with a noisy thud onto the rough plank floor. Stepping up into the privy he drew back his foot to kick at the toolbox but stopped short, figuring with his luck he'd only break his toe.

The nasal drone of Mayor Higgs' voice drifted into the outhouse.  The man was still advising Murdoch on child rearing. Removing his bandana, Johnny fashioned it into a triangle and tied it around the bottom portion of his face.  Higgs was still sermonizing, and the youth shook his head.   Asshole, he thought.  The pendejo is as full of shit as his cesspit.  Removing a match from his pocket he struck it, the sulfur stick flaring brightly.  Entranced, he watched as the flame changed color in reaction to the gases within the small outhouse.  Holding the match over the hole for light, Johnny peered into the depths and was shocked to see the boots upright in the sludge.  The human manure had oozed completely over the toes and was inching its way up the vamps.  Shaking the flame out, Johnny snorted. Looks like I'm not the only one ankle deep in shit.

The smell was beginning to get to him and he gagged and his eyes watered.  The irritating thing about this was he knew good and damn well his dad was never going to wear these boots again. He was being made to retrieve them as punishment and the ever and often quoted, the principle of the thing .  Grimacing in disgust, Johnny reluctantly reached into the hole, only to be slapped with the frustration of just barely being able to brush the rim of the boot shaft with his middle finger.  Jerking his arm out, he pounded the wooden seat in anger. His eyes lit up as he realized if he pried the bench top off he would be able to lean in more.

“Is everything all right in there?” Murdoch called out.

“Fine,” Johnny answered as he appeared in the doorway and jumped down to the yard; completely avoiding the two steps. “I just need somethin' from the wagon.” Lithely leaping into the back of the wagon and moving towards the seat, Johnny reached in the utility box and grabbed a crow bar.  Then, spying a burlap sack, he snagged it as well; planning to use it to tote the boots. 

Crossing back to the privy, Johnny hid a grin with an uplifted hand as he observed his father and Higgs.  The Mayor was still jawing away; and Murdoch was nodding his head.  Higgs was such a fool, he thought.  Poor bastard has no idea Murdoch is just pretendin' to listen ‘cause no way in hell is he gonna let anyone else call the tune.

The wooden seat creaked in protest as Johnny pried it up.  An ominous cracking sound preceded the give of the last nail. The stress of pulling the top planking free fractured the wood from one incised oval to the other, right along the wood grain.  “Shit,” Johnny muttered .  “This is just fuckin' great.  Now I got to build a new seat top.”

Dropping the two foot by four foot single piece of planking back into place, Johnny did a double take as there was no sign of the split in the wood on the top side. A devilish grin curled his lips upward.  Visions of the fracture becoming a complete break while the Mayor sat there doin' his business delighted his sense of retribution.  He snickered .  Out of sight, out of mind.

Pushing his sleeves up and holding his breath, Johnny quickly raised the lid back up and snatched first one boot by the pull-on tab, and then the other.   Rushing outside into the fresh air and sunshine, he sat the boots on the ground and kicked dry sand over the muck.  It wouldn't take long, he knew, what with the sun and the afternoon breeze, for the dirt to absorb the moisture.  Better to deal with dried up shit than the wet stuff, he figured.

The lower part of his face still covered by the now sweat-damp bandana, he returned to the outhouse.  It didn't take him long to tack the two-holed piece of planking back into place.  He even used new nails from the tool box.  Shorter'n than the ones the original carpenter had used, but -- what the hell -- a nail was nail.

After lugging the toolbox to the wagon and hoisting it aboard, Johnny took the burlap sack over to the spot where he left the boots.  Picking them up by the shafts, he beat the heels together; nodding in satisfaction as the clumped sand fell off, taking the sewage debris with it.  He crammed the footwear into the bag and tossed it in the back of the wagon.

Striding over to Higgs' garden pump, Johnny worked the handle until he had a fresh flow of water.  The Mayor's wife had left a bar of soap and a hand towel on a small stool beside the pump.  He picked up the yellow bar, recognizing the scent of naphtha.  Maria used a similar soap to do the laundry.  When she wasn't threatening to wash his mouth out with it. 

Vigorously, Johnny soaped up his hands and arms; wincing at the sting as he scrubbed the stink from his skin.  Then, satisfied he was finally clean, he worked the pump again; switching hands as he rinsed off each arm.  He finished his bath by sticking his head under the rush of cold water.  Grabbing the towel, he quickly dried himself off, giving up on his mop of thick hair.  It curled when it was wet; a good thing, because it made his hair appear shorter.  And the Old Man was always on him about gettin' a hair cut.

Going over to the porch, Johnny stood, hands held behind his back and waited for his father to end his conversation and acknowledge him.  He frowned when he realized the Mayor was once again complaining about having no authority over Val. He couldn't stop the smirk over his father's reply.

Stubbing out his cigar in the bucket of sand sitting next to the bench, Murdoch grimaced.  He was reaching the short end of his already limited patience.  “Val answers to the Cattle Growers Association,” he ground out.  “We are the ones paying his salary, and we are the ones holding him accountable.”  Raising his hand, palm out, Murdoch stalled the Mayor's argument. “Johnny has something he needs to say before we leave to tend to other business.”

Johnny squirmed under the severe glare being directed at him by his father.  He knew what it meant; it was Murdoch's way of warning him not to mess up this apology, or to play any cute word games.  Dropping his chin to his chest and drawing circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot, Johnny considered his words carefully. It really chapped his ass to have to say he was sorry for damage he just didn't think he should be held responsible for. 

The words came to him and his head came up, his face glowing with angelic light. “Mayor,” nodding his head as the screen door to the porch opened, “Mrs. Higgs, I'm real sorry I hid in your outhouse to keep the Widow Hargis from shootin' me. I just never been chased by an old woman with a gun before.”  He shrugged, as if he was really embarrassed.  “Guess I was just runnin' scared,” he murmured.  His eyes shifted until he was looking directly into Mrs. Higgs' pale orbs.  “I'm hopin', ma'am, you can find it heart to forgive me?”  

There it was, Murdoch thought ruefully, that little boy lost look he turns on Maria.  He shook his head.

The childless Nancy Higgs melted like sugar in hot water, just as Johnny had intended.  Clucking her tongue at the hard hearted males standing on her porch, she reached out and patted the boy's cheek.   “Of course you are forgiven!  Here you are apologizing; and after you've repaired all that damage caused by that busy body, Eutrilia Hargis.  Why, the nerve of that woman!  Thinking she has the right to do Sheriff Crawford's job.”  She paused to smack the Mayor's shoulder when he mumbled something she couldn't make out; just as quickly dismissing him as she turned to the young man.  “You look all done in, Johnny. Can I get you something to eat, or maybe a nice cool drink?”

Murdoch's eyes rose towards the Heavens.   That boy could sell a glass of water to a drowning man when he turns on the charm.   Reaching out to clasp Mrs. Higgs hand, he shook his head at her invitation.  “We need to be on our way.  We still need to stop by the Widow's place, the saloon and the Sheriff's office.”  Ducking to avoid hitting his head on the porch overhang, Murdoch descended the three steps to join Johnny in the yard. He could see his youngest was biting his lips to keep from grinning.

The two Lancers walked silently side by side to the wagon.  Once they were seated, Murdoch turned to Johnny. “Don't expect that contrite little boy act to work on the Widow, young man.”

Johnny's chin dropped to his chest, and he was fighting a smile.  “I know,” he sighed.  “Findin' that ol' battle axe with a smile on her face is about as likely to happen as findin' flea shit in a pile of black pepper.”

Using the ends of the leather lines, Murdoch popped the top of his son's thigh, “You've been spending time in the bunkhouse again,” he scolded.  “The hands' earthy vernacular has been appearing in your speech far too much lately.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

They found the Widow Hargis sweeping the boardwalk in front of her store.  She claimed she did it to help keep Green River beautiful; but Johnny knew better.  She swept her porch three times a day like clockwork, and if she wasn't sweepin', she was peekin' out into the streets from behind her curtained windows.  Hell, he thought, it was the old bitch's favorite past time.  Spyin' on the town and stickin' her nose into every body's business.

Johnny remained on the wagon seat as the Widow shook her broom at him. The veins on her neck were engorged and very visible as she rebuked him.  “If you were my son, after the stunts you pulled on Halloween, you wouldn't be able to sit on a wagon seat or anything else for a week when I got through with you!”  Her heels tapped out a mad rhythm as she stamped her feet with her speech.

A nudge to his ribs from his father encouraged Johnny to leave the wagon and approach the woman.  It was a reluctant advance, and he was seriously regretting he wasn't armed.  Lifting both hands in a gesture of unarmed truce, he addressed the woman. “Ms. Hargis, I'd like to apologize for all the carryin' on the other night.  I never figured on scarin' you so bad you'd feel you needed to pick up that shotgun.”  He flinched but held his ground as she swatted his leg twice with her broom.  “And, ma'am, if there's anything...” he repeated the word, making it sound like a plea for mercy, “... anything I can do to make it up to you, I'd be more than willin' to make it right.”  Despite his father's warning that his wounded look wouldn't work, he decided to try it anyway.  His bottom lip protruded and trembled slightly, a soft sigh coming as he tilted his head down for a heartbeat.  When he looked up again, he had actually managed to squeeze some moisture from his eyes; the crocodile tears that beaded against his long lashes making his sapphire eyes seem even bluer.  He went in for the kill.  “Guess if my mama had been around to teach me better,” he murmured, leaning in, “or if Murdoch coulda found me when I was still fit for bein' with decent folks like you, I would'a known better.”

Broom canted to the side, but poised to strike again, Eutrilia Hargis fell victim to the boyish face of Johnny Lancer.  Her posture softened as did her face.  “Well,” she began, reaching out to pat his arm, “it wouldn't be very Christian of me to not spread some of God's love in your direction, boy.”  She turned to face Murdoch, the severe frown coming again as she faced the man.  “Well, what are you standing there for,” she asked.  “A fool could tell this boy needs a cold drink and little something in his stomach.  Now, you come in, both of you.”  Turning around, she marched up the stairs; no doubt in her mind the Lancers would follow.

Johnny fairly danced up the stairs in the widow's wake; turning back slightly to grin at his father.

For the next hour, Eutrilia Hargis stuffed Johnny full of cold buttermilk and thick slabs of pound cake.  Unfortunately for Murdoch, the woman could talk while she bustled around the kitchen.  And talk she did.  Without seeming to take a breath, she lectured Murdoch Lancer on his responsibilities as a father; on how hard he needed to work to undo all the things that poor boy had endured.  Finally, she ran out of steam.  She packed up the remainder of the cake and ushered the pair out of the door.  “Church!” she shouted at Murdoch's back.  “You bring that boy to church next Sunday!”

They paused at the wagon just long enough to stow the leftover cake, and then headed directly for the saloon.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Entering the Silver Dollar, the Lancers were greeted by the sight of James Francis Clancy, the owner of the growing establishment.  The Irishman had a big bottle of lemon oil stain in his beefy hand, and a rag in the other.  He was polishing the top of the recently sanded bar.  “Murdoch,” he greeted, the brogue a bit pronounced; as it usually was when Clancy was perturbed.  “And you, me lad,” he said, his gaze shifting to Johnny.  “I almost didn't recognize you, boy , in clothes that fit and without a flamin' pumpkin in your hand.” 

Johnny licked his lips as he turned cautiously to see how his father reacted to the Irishman's obvious sarcasm.  Murdoch was frowning, but more in thought than ire.

Tapping a long finger on the bar, Murdoch glanced about the room.  He scowled upon seeing the damage had already been taken care of.  The window had been replaced, there was a new layer of clean sawdust on the floor and it looked like Clancy was polishing the remaining burn scars from the finish at the end of the bar nearest the window.  “James,” he began; “we came by to see what kind of reparations Johnny could make for the damages he caused; but it looks like you have taken care of things.”

Clancy nodded his head.  “I'm sure you wanted to teach the boy ,” he emphasized the word, “a lesson, but I couldn't wait until he got around to me. This is how I make my livin', Murdoch.  Can't wait until tomorrow to make right what needs fixin' today.”

Not thinking about the fact his father was standing there; Johnny grinned and rubbed his hands together, pleased all was settled at the saloon.

Murdoch pinned his son with a single, slate-grey stare.  “I don't know why you're so happy. Since the destruction has been taken care of; the cost of the window, the sawdust and the supplies Clancy needed to make repairs will be coming out of your pay.”  Pulling himself up ramrod straight, he declared in a voice worthy of a burning bush, “And anything else that was required to restore order. Furthermore, the Silver Dollar is off limits to you for the next month.” Reaching out he gripped the back of Johnny's neck, “And not just the Silver Dollar, all the saloons in our vicinity.” He tightened his hold slightly and gave a little shake to his son. “Don't you have something to say to Mr. Clancy, John?”

Clancy's eyes sparked at the unexpected news that Johnny Madrid, the Johnny Madrid, was being made to apologize to him.  It was a moment to treasure.  Aye, all the saints in Heaven would be rejoicin' over this one.

Scrunching up his shoulders as his father's strong fingers bit into the soft skin of his neck, Johnny took a deep breath and plunged in.  Remembering the way his father had addressed the man, he followed suit.  “Sorry about the window, Mr. Clancy.”  It was pretty clear his boyish charm wasn't going to work on the Irishman.  “Reckon it was pretty damned stupid to pour home brewed corn liquor onto a piece a cloth when the candles went out.”  He risked a smile at the bar owner.  “That damned pumpkin got pretty hot…”  Thunk.  Half-turning, he frowned up at his father, his left hand rising to wipe at the sore spot on the back of his head.  “Things got outta hand.”  The next part was really hard.  “It was wrong, and I shouldn't a done it.”  Pulling away his father's clutch, Johnny moved forward and shook hands with the bartender.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Striding down the boardwalk to the Sheriff's office, Murdoch turned to his son.  “Your apology to Clancy sounded much more sincere than the ones you offered the Mayor and the Widow.”  He turned to watch Johnny's reaction to his observation.

Brushing the hair away from his ear, and then poking a finger into it to scratch, Johnny shrugged.   “The way I see it, Clancy was the only real victim here.  It really was an accident that the pum'kin got tossed through his window.” Stopping, he began scuffing at the plank boardwalk with his heel.  “It was Widow Hargis that took things too far.  I was just ridin' through town; she's the one that started shootin' at things.”

Murdoch snorted; clearly not accepting his son's logic.  “And what's the reason behind the damage you caused at the jail?  You certainly can't blame that bit of artistic tomfoolery on the Widow shooting at you.”

Johnny's eyes twinkled with pure devilment, but he was still avoiding looking at his father.  “Well, she kinda pissed me off first, and then Val did the same, so…”  His right shoulder lifted.   

Johnny yelped in surprise over the swift and sneaky swat Murdoch applied to his backside. “I would suggest you don't dole out that excuse to Val or you might find your head boiling in the frying pan with his coffee.”

The two Lancers were chuckling as they entered the Sheriff's office.  One look at Crawford and Johnny began to fidget nervously. He stepped back into the rock solid wall of his father's chest, only to have Murdoch shove him forward.  Val, his long time friend was sitting in his chair, his feet propped on the desk top. He was watching Johnny through eyes narrowed in displeasure. The lawman ran his tongue under the ridge of his lower teeth, dislodging the small chaw of snuff; which he spat with amazing accuracy dead center of the spittoon in the far corner.

It was, Johnny knew, never a good thing when Val chewed; tobacco or snuff.  It was the first sign he was more than a tad upset, and a good indication something bad was about to happen.  The feeling was confirmed as Johnny watched Val shove back his chair and stand up.

Val stood, his lean body deceptively relaxed, giving him the look he didn't have a care in the world.    He sauntered out from behind the desk, and got right into the youngest Lancer's face. “Bout time you got here, boy. Your supplies are in the cell over there. You're goin' to scrub that wall down to bare plaster.  And then, while its dryin',” he swung the pointing finger from the interior of the cell to the five gallon bucket sitting beside the back door, “you're goin' to take that bucket of white wash powder out back and mix it up with water.  And then, boy, you are goin' to paint that wall.”

Johnny leaned forward to look into the cell.  The holding cell was ten by ten with an eight foot ceiling; barred on three sides.  His eyes narrowed as he surveyed the spot where he had inscribed his name.  The yellow stain occupied a relatively small space when compared to the size of the wall.  Didn't seem fair, he puzzled, havin' to paint eighty feet of wall to cover up some little spot in the corner.  He turned to face the lawman.  “How much of the wall?” he asked.

All of that wall!” Val shouted.  He snatched his hat off his head, and as Johnny tried to back away; dished out a half-dozen healthy swats.  “And you ever take a piss on my jail again, I'll put a diaper on you and waltz your sorry ass through town and straight down the road to Lancer. You hear me, boy?”

Johnny looked up to make sure it was safe, keeping his arms covering his head until he saw Val toss his battered Stetson across the room to land on the chair by the door.  “I hear ya, I hear ya!”   Knowing Val would do exactly what he had promised; Johnny surrendered and headed for the cell.  Cursing under his breath, he picked up the scrub brush from the bucket of water and the bar of lye soap sitting on the chair. He swiped the bristles with the soap, and then applied it to the wall where he had written his name in urine.  The scritch and scratch of the brush caused the previous white wash to flake off.  It also prevented him from hearing Murdoch and Val's conversation but he did notice they looked like two old bitty gossips.  When he was sure he had the area clean he dunked the scrubber in the water and rinsed it; and then wet a rag to wipe the soap residue away.  There was now an area of the wall where the white wash was gone, leaving a dingy grey spot.

“Well don't just stand there all day admirin' your handy work, git that bucket of white wash and go mix it!” Val barked when he noticed Johnny just standing there.

Git that bucket of white wash and go mix it! Johnny mimicked.  Staring down into the pail, his mouth contorted in disgust. Pointing to the mixture he asked, “What the Hell is this shit? Why would you put it on the walls, it stinks!”

“Not as bad as your piss,” Val sassed back, starting to rise from his chair until Murdoch put out a staying hand.

“White wash is made of a mixture of different things like milk, ground rice, glue, egg whites, salt and flour among other things,” Murdoch replied, stopping the two from continuing to snap at each other. “Just take it out back and add enough water to it to make it about as thick as buttermilk.”

Val's bay gelding was ground tied under a shade tree in the back, right near the horse trough. Just as Johnny dipped an empty bucket into the water, the horse began to urinate.  Nothing other than the Devil spurred Johnny's next action.  Rushing over to the horse he placed the pail of white wash in a spot to catch the pale golden liquid. When he felt he had enough he grabbed it back and looked around for a stick to stir it.

Lugging the now full and heavy pail back into the jail, Johnny couldn't resist asking, “Are you sure you want me to put this crap on the wall?  I'm tellin' you, it's smells bad!”  Well, I warned him.

Slamming his tin coffee cup down, Val snarled, “Yes, I'm sure; and you paint that whole damn wall like I told you, and not just the spot you scrubbed clean.”

Forty minutes later, the pail was empty, the dry adobe walls having soaked up all the wash.  Johnny took the bucket out back and rinsed it, turned it upside down next to the back door, and then informed his father he was tired and ready to go home.

Confusion marring his face, Val watched the Lancer wagon rumble out of town. Johnny was up to something; or had done something.  He just knew it from the way the boy rushed his father to leave. The question was what?  Hell, the boy had been under the supervision of his pa all day; and the two of them had been watchin' him in the jail.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Two miles outside of town, Johnny stretched and yawned loudly, his jaw making an audible popping sound.

“Tired, son?” Murdoch asked, an indulgent smile softening his features.

Johnny made a big deal of stifling a second yawn.  “Yeah,” he sighed.  “I ain't never worked so hard in my life.  I think I'll lie down in the back of the wagon and catch me a siesta. ”  Bracing a hand on his father's shoulder, Johnny turned on the seat and lifted his legs over the back rest to drop down into the wagon bed.  A sack of flour -- one of the two fifty pound bags Murdoch had picked up at Baldemero's -- turned into a handy pillow, and the weathered tarp, a just right blanket.   He hunkered in and covered up.

He feigned sleep, aware of the subtle shifting of the wagon's bench as his father reached back to pull the tarp up around his shoulders.  Pretending to snuggle in, Johnny tucked his head under the blanket; then squirmed his butt further down into the wagon bed until his entire body was completely covered up.

Out of consideration for his sleeping son, Murdoch had slowed the team to a near walk.  The slower pace made the ride home longer -- something that caused a twinge in the big man's game leg -- but he didn't mind.  In spite of the niggling pain, he was content.  Johnny had been taught a valuable lesson today; that there were consequences for his thoughtless high jinks.  Yes, he mused, as a responsible parent, he had demonstrated quite clearly that no bad deed goes unpunished.  It would be a long time before his baby boy indulged in any more senseless pranks.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny flipped a corner of the tarp aside and carefully rose up on one elbow to peer over the side of the wagon.  He grinned.  They were approaching the arch; that grand monument to all things Lancer. 

All things Lancer, he mused.  Like the hacienda .  Thirty-seven fuckin' rooms, countin' the annex.  The house was bigger than some of the rat-hole little aldeas (villages) his mama had drug him in and out of throughout his childhood.

Plumping the two flour sacks into a shape that represented his sleeping body and covering them with the faded tarp, Johnny shimmied his way towards the open tail end of the wagon.  And then, timing his exit just right, he dropped down into the roadway and disappeared into the thick shrubbery that bordered the tag end of the great house.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Unseen by his father, Johnny worked his way through the cluster of bushes that bordered the last suite of rooms that marked the end of the annex.  The rooms were only used when Lancer entertained: when the visiting members of the Cattle Growers Association gathered from all corners of the vast San Joaquin valley and beyond came for the monthly meetings.

They were empty now; all of them.  But it was the end room Johnny was planning to use. 

He eased open the shutters covering the back window; grimacing a bit as the hinges squealed in protest.  The multi-paned, swing out windows that were locked from inside were next, and he dug into his belt to retrieve his small pen knife.   With the same deft skills he had honed from his childhood, he opened the single blade, and gingerly inserted it between the wooden frames.  With a single flick of his wrist, he flipped the interior latch and opened the windows full.

Hoisting himself up over the sill, he dropped into the room.  A smug grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as he surveyed his little kingdom.  He reached back, closing the windows without as much as a backwards glance.

He belly-flopped onto the wide double bed, sinking into the heavy down comforter; and then flipping himself onto this back.  Hands behind his head, he stared up at the ceiling.  If only big brother could see him now, he chuckled.  Yep.  Good ol' tin soldier Scott; always spoutin' off about the army, and what it was like to be a guerilla fighter.  ‘Sometimes,' Scott had told him, ‘the best place to hide from the enemy is in plain sight'.

And that's exactly what he planned to do.  Hide right here under their noses. 

Jesus, he was smart!  He knew, once the shit hit the fan -- he laughed -- or Mayor Higgs hit the shit, everyone would be looking for him.  Raising his arms, he stretched them high above his head; his fingers locked as he worked out the kinks from his long day.  He could see it now; Murdoch, Scott and Val, bustin' their asses trying to figure out where the Hell he'd gotten off to.  And all the time he'd be right here.  Snitchin' leftovers from Maria's kitchen, sippin' tequila from the Old Man's stash…

All the thinking and planning had worn the young man out.  Cradling his head into the plump, goose-down pillows, he promptly fell asleep.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Sighing in contentment as the wagon rolled into the front yard, Murdoch was about to call out to Johnny to wake him when he spied Scott.  His oldest son was standing on the porch, arms clenched tightly across his chest; a pinched and definitely peeved expression marring his usually calm face.  Pulling the wagon to a complete stop, Murdoch sucked in a deep breath. 

Scott stalked across the courtyard.  “Where's Johnny,” he demanded, his nostrils flaring.

Murdoch was wrapping the lines around the hand brake.  In spite of his son's uncustomary rudeness, he remained calm.  “Sound asleep under the tarp in the back. Why?”

Scott laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.  “Because I'm going to hurt him; and you can't stop me,” he vowed, gesturing to his shirt and pants.

Murdoch's gaze shifted from his son's face to his long frame.  Scott was wearing his new, light tan shirt and a pair of pale brown twills; which were both streaked with something black.  As the blonde stormed by heading towards the back of the wagon, Murdoch noticed the seat of the younger man's trousers were emblazoned with a perfectly shaped black handprint.  “What in the world happened to your clothes?”  He regretted the question as soon as it poured from between his lips.

“Johnny put lampblack on my black gelding to conceal the creases in his hide from Widow Hargis' scattergun and load of rock salt, and now I'm going to put a few marks on his sorry ass!” Scott roared.  He snatched the tarp from the wagon bed.  “Ahah!”

Reluctantly, Murdoch turned around.  He closed his eyes and just as quickly reopened them.  Johnny was gone.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny was still among the missing two days later when an enraged Val Crawford woke the entire household beating on the door with the butt of his rifle. 

Bellowing for coffee, Murdoch ushered the lawman into the Great Room.  Scott had joined them, his mood much the same as the two older men.  Foul.   Still, he was able to make a proper apology to Maria, relieving the woman of her full tray before sending her back to her kitchen.  The poor woman had been in a dither since Johnny's disappearance, sure and certain the boy -- like the food mysteriously missing from her pantry -- had been snatched away by evil spirits.

Scott poured the coffee; leaving room in all three mugs for a generous shot of bourbon.  He handed a mug off to Val; a second one to his father.  Both men took a healthy swig, but remained silent.

“I assume you have a reason for your visit,” Scott prompted.

A reason?” Val thundered.  He jabbed a rigid forefinger in the younger man's chest.  “Let me count the ways,” he declared, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Scott was unable to hide the smile.  Val was a lot more educated than he let on; and often quoted the classics when he was so inclined.  “Johnny,” he murmured.

Murdoch's jaws clenched at the mention of his youngest son's name.  Ten hours in the saddle the day before had left him sore in places he had forgotten he had.  “Out with it,” he ground out.

Val was raking his fingers through his long hair.  “Let me tell you how I spent my night,” he groused.  “Seems Mayor Higgs' had a bit of an accident after supper.  Took himself off for little evening stroll to the jake, and next thing you know, his fat ass is wedged in what's left of that two-holer he's so proud of.  Took me, Ty Underwood and Sam damned near two hours to haul his ass out of the shit, and that don't count the time it took with me holdin' him down for Sam to dig out the slivers.

“Then I go back to the jail, figurin' on a quiet pot a coffee and a fire to take off the mornin' chill…” he grimaced, “…and the next thing I know, the whole place is stinkin' like…”  He threw up his right hand in frustration.  “Like some goddamned barn that hasn't been mucked out in a month of Sundays.”

Murdoch was about to speak when another knock at the front door interrupted him.  All three men turned to watch as Maria led Val's deputy, Ty Underwood, into the room.

“What!?” Val snapped.

Underwood's dark eyes widened.  He stood for a time, working the brim of his Stetson in a nervous circle before summoning the nerve to speak up.  “The Widow Hargis,” he stammered.  “Someone snatched her bloomers from the clothesline in her backyard, and run ‘em up the flagpole at the school house.”

There was a chattering sound, crystal against china, as Murdoch poured another measure of whiskey into his almost empty mug.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny crawled into the bed.  He didn't bother to take his clothes off.  There'd been the long, late night ride to Green River and back; and then the hike from the pasture where he turned out Barranca, and he was tired.  Hell, he was damned near dead on his feet.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch was making a mental list.  Scott, Higgs, Val; the Widow Hargis .  It was too much to be a coincidence: all four names with one common link, Johnny.  The tick beneath his right eye started, and increased in its intensity.  “Scott,” he breathed.  “I want you to get Cip, Paco and Mateo.  And Frank.  I don't care how long it takes; we're going to find your brother.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

They spent a full day in the saddle, scouring Johnny's known haunts; totally perplexed when they arrived in the south pasture and spied Barranca grazing in the knee high grass.  Scott kicked his right boot free of the stirrup, raising his leg to rest it across the pommel of his saddle.  “It doesn't make any sense,” he thought aloud.  “The remuda is accounted for, there are no horses missing, and you know Johnny is no fan of walking.”  He nodded in the direction of the palomino.  “I think Johnny's somewhere close, and he's left Barranca here where the animal would be more accessible.”

Murdoch's jaws flexed.  He turned to Mateo.  “Gather up Barranca,” he instructed.  “We'll turn him out in the paddock where we can keep an eye on him.”

Val moved forward.  He was shaking out his rope, the stiff hemp forming a generous loop.  “I'll fetch him,” he said.  With that, he touched his heels to the gelding's ribs, and moved out.

It was obvious from Val's moves the man had worked livestock before.  Murdoch and the others watched as the lawman, riding full bore with only his legs controlling his mount, skillfully hazed the palomino across the meadow and made his toss.  Rope-broke, Barranca skidded to an immediate halt; dancing in place as Val dallied the reata and reeled him in.

Mateo whistled in appreciation.  He could count on the fingers of one hand the vaqueros at Lancer who chanced close contact with Johnny's horse, and yet the lawman had the animal completely under control.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

They were in the barn; Scott, Murdoch and Val.  After careful consideration, they had determined their purposes would be better served if the palomino was secure in its stall.  Scott was the first one to speak.  He was toying with the lead rope he had just unsnapped from Barranca's halter, threading the rope in a slow circle through his gloved fingers as he contemplated his words.  “I think we're looking for Johnny in the wrong places,” he said finally.  Absently, he handed the lead rope off to Val; who for some reason looped the tether over his shoulder.

“How so?” Murdoch asked.  He had just tossed a flake of alfalfa into the stall, and was brushing the excess dust from his palms.

Scott drew in a shallow breath.  “I've talked to Johnny a little about my experiences in the War, sir.  I remembered, today, I told him once the best way to hide from the enemy was to hide in plain sight.”  He gifted his father with a smile that was almost wistful.  “I dressed as a Confederate soldier once…” the words drifted off into nothingness.

Sensing a need to lighten the mood, Val tapped the younger man's flat stomach with the back of his hand.  “Tried that myself,” he joshed.  “Only it was me in the middle of a pack of Comanch…”

Murdoch chuckled.  “You still have your hair, Val.  I assume the ruse worked?”

Val swiped at his nose with a bent forefinger.  “Nope,” he teased.  “Bastards killed me.”  He turned back to the blond.  “So where you figure the kid's hiding?”

Scott was smirking.  “The hacienda ,” he breathed.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Wide awake, Johnny bolted upright in the bed.  The sound had torn into his slumber; something akin to the distant report of a rifle.  Bang.  A pause.  Bang.  The noise was sharper now; and getting closer.

Scrambling up from the bed, his first instinct was to grab for his pistol.  Grimacing, he cursed.  And still the loud bangs continued.

And then it hit him.  Doors.  It was the sound of doors being slammed shut.

He felt a sudden twisting in his gut.   Shit!  Shit, shit, shit!

And then the door to the room -- his room -- swung open.

“John.”

Johnny's hands were pressed against his thighs, his fingers kneading the flesh.  “Hey, Papí, ” he croaked.  He hoped the endearment would work.  It didn't.  Nervously, he shifted his gaze to his sibling; whose expression was exactly the same as Murdoch's.  “Brother…”  Scott's frown deepened.  So much for the loving family bit, he reflected. 

And then he saw Val.  “ Compadre, ” he grinned.

The lawman shouldered his way past his companions; leading the way as the three men stepped into the now shrinking room.

Reaching out, Murdoch tapped Val's shoulder; his fingers closing around the plaited lead rope that was still looped around the lawman's shoulder.  “I believe, Val, you gave me this rope,” he said.  “That first day when I met you in Green River.”

Val's lips parted in a wide smile.  He nodded, remembering.  “Told you it might be a good idea to hang on to it, too.”

Murdoch had lifted the rope from the man's shoulder; had doubled it over.  He held it out, and then nodded at his son.  “ Mi casa, es su casa, Val.”  (My house is your house.)

Blue eyes wide, Johnny's mouth dropped open, and he was backing up.  “Uhh, Pa?”

Murdoch turned, his right hand reaching out to take Scott's arm.  “Shall we, son?”  He nodded towards the door.

Scott held back, but for only a moment.  “It would be my pleasure, sir,” he responded and stepped across the threshold.

Val back kicked the door, slamming it shut.  The double-over lead was in his right hand, slapping ominously against his right thigh.  “You and me are gonna have a talk, boy,” he drawled, “a real… long… talk.”    

 

 

~end~
Hallowe'en 2010

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