Word count 9,849
Disclaimer: Yeah. Right. Very minor cussing; some bitter truths for people who still believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Oh, yeah. The Tooth Fairy and Leprechauns.
He found the catalog by accident. Actually, he’d snuck into Scott’s bedroom in search of the lucky two-headed silver coin his elder brother had won from him in a poker game, and refused to give back.
It had become a game between them; a pain in the ass hide-and-seek game, and so far, Scott was winning. That didn’t sit too well with the younger Lancer son; no sir-ee. It was bad enough to have an older brother; without having one that was taller, sneakier, and so damned cocky about it.
Which was exactly why Johnny Madrid Lancer was on his hands and knees; leather-shrouded butt in the air as he swept a long arm beneath his elder brother’s bed. It wasn’t working. He dropped down on his belly for a closer look.
And that’s when he saw it: the corner of a book sticking out from between the mattress and the woven rope supports. Scooting a bit farther under the bed — damn Scott and his long arms — he snagged the book. Fingers closing around the prize, he backed he way out of the cramped space.
Johnny cast a quick look at the partially open bedroom door; his head canted as he listened for any activity in the hallway. Nothing. In the distance, from the first floor, he could hear the soft sound of Maria’s singing.
Content he would not be disturbed, Johnny wet his forefinger with his tongue and began studying the booklet in earnest as he flicked the pages. He couldn’t believe it. An entire catalog with nothing but…
Johnny was almost salivating now. He sat, his shoulders resting against the side of his brother’s bed, turning the pages one-by-one. Damn, he thought. He shut the magazine briefly, reading the name on the cover — Cadbury’s — and then began leafing through the pages again.
It struck Johnny then, that the catalog was divided in sections; in alphabetical order. Anniversaries. Birthdays. Christenings. Confirmation. Something seemed to be amiss and his brow furrowed. No Christmas? he thought. And then he saw it: Holidays. He opened the book to that section. The lithograph illustrations were quite detailed. At once, he recognized at once the heart-shaped boxes Scott had been dispensing on Valentine’s Day. The bastard had even made little, penciled check marks beside the items he had purchased and delivered to the ladies in Green River.
Wincing at the crackling sound the pages were making, he wet the tip of his thumb and carefully began backtracking through the Holiday section again. And then he stopped. EASTER. Below the ornate inscription in smaller print: guaranteed on-time delivery anywhere in the world when ordered 30 days prior to celebration.
But what really got the brunet’s attention were all the little, precise check marks. His eyes narrowed. It was just three days until Easter.
Johnny slapped the magazine closed, and just as quickly reopened it. He began — lovingly — tracing the outlines of the various products illustrated on the pages. Rabbits. Eggs. Little Chickens. And then he began to read. Every other word seemed to be CHOCOLATE. Oh, and something about marshmallow, whatever the hell that was. Didn’t matter; ‘cause whatever it was it was covered with CHOCOLATE.
And Johnny wanted it. Now.
Without any thought about covering his tracks, Johnny shut the magazine for the final time and back-slapped it beneath the bed. He was barely aware of the sound as the booklet slipped across the carpet and hung up on the leg on the opposite corner; the cover more than half-way exposed.
Teresa clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, Scott!” each word came with a puff of white vapor. “The children are going to be absolutely delighted.”
Scott nodded in agreement. They were in the ice house. Spread out before them were a variety of containers; five columns of twenty neatly stacked boxes atop the thick canvas tarp that — along with layers of clean straw — covered and preserved the blocks of ice that had been cut from the mountain lake above Lancer the previous winter. Sawdust covered the floor; only slightly damp from the slow thaw. “Are we going to have enough?” he asked; small clouds of mist coming with each word.
The young woman was counting, her pointing finger moving in cadence to the numbers she was silently mouthing. There were eleven small children with the families at Lancer, twenty-eight children at the Sunday school in Green River, another two dozen at the mission school and twelve at the small orphanage in Morro Coyo. “Yes,” she answered. “It looks like there will be extras, too.”
Scott hid a smile beneath his gloved fingers. He had definite plans for some of the milk chocolate treats; including a Saturday night visit to a certain Miss Rachel Fairchild.
There was a sound of wood scraping against wood, and a narrow shaft of light penetrated the near darkness; widening to be dimmed again briefly by the giant of a man looming in the doorway. “Teresa?” A short pause. “Scott?”
The blond turned slightly. “Over here, sir,” he called.
Murdoch Lancer trudged across the floor, making his way down the corridor formed by the large ice blocks. He took off his Stetson; brushing it against his thigh. “Only another three days,” he observed. Still, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation, this much chocolate in such close proximity to his youngest son; and it showed in his tone.
Scott laid his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Johnny doesn’t come into the ice house any more, sir.” He smiled. “Not since you made him gut and clean all those fish.”
All those fish, Murdoch thought darkly, remembering all too well Johnny’s fishing expedition with the Simmons’ twins. His son and heir — his idiot son and heir — had used dynamite to catch fish; the ensuing explosion blowing out the rock-bermed edge of the pond in the north-west meadow. What had followed was still discussed on the ranch and in two adjoining counties: a small flood, the stampeding of the milch cows, a veritable down pour of fish and aquatic life that had rained down over almost a half-acre of prime pasture. Johnny had spent a considerable amount of time in the ice house as punishment; scaling, gutting and filleting the fish Maria had determined to be keepers.
“Sir?” Scott tapped his father’s shoulder.
Roused from his musings, Murdoch simply nodded. “I just wish you had discussed this with me before you ordered all these sweets,” he groused. “All this chocolate.” He was going to have a serious discussion sometime soon with his elder son about his foolish spending habits.
Teresa was rearranging — restacking — all the boxes, pointedly attempting to remain aloof from the two men. She moved farther and farther away as she went about her task.
Scott felt a twinge of guilt. Toeing at the saw dust beneath his feet, he avoided his father’s gaze. “You’re thinking about Valentine’s Day,” he breathed. Somehow, his decision to order more chocolate on the heels of the Valentine’s Day fiasco didn’t seem so wise, even though he had amended the order to include Teresa’s charities.
Murdoch frowned. He hadn’t actually been thinking of the recently passed holiday, but now that it had been mentioned… “And can you honestly tell me, son, you’d care to see your brother hanging from the chandeliers in the Great Room again, or to relive what I’m sure was a very long night trying to get him — and Barranca — back home?”
The blond couldn’t stop the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth. While it hadn’t been entirely amusing as it was occurring, looking back… Visions of Johnny hobbling on a broken shoe down the road in a dress and a wig trying to catch Barranca suddenly swept unbidden across his mind.
He knew at once from his father’s tone Murdoch had seen the grin. Biting down hard, he clenched his teeth to stop the smile from growing. “Really, Murdoch; I think we’re quite all right this time.” He gestured towards the stacks of boxes. “There’s no reason Johnny should think anything is going on. He’s been so busy trying to figure out how he’s going to get out of attending the church social on Sunday…” he hesitated, “…oh, and Maria’s been on him about taking Communion at the mission. So he’s — well — been making himself scarce. In fact, I haven’t seen him since last night.” Ooops, Scott thought; probably not a good idea to remind Murdoch Johnny didn’t make it to the breakfast table.
Murdoch nodded; but it was clear from the expression on his face he wasn’t entirely convinced. It didn’t help that his youngest boy hadn’t made an appearance at breakfast. No; Johnny on the scent of chocolate was like an Irish setter on the trail of a covey quail.
“Hey, Mamacita!” Johnny eased his way into the kitchen. “I’m lookin’ for Scott.”
Sweeping a stray hair back from her face, the housekeeper looked up from her bowl and cast a suspicious look at the younger Lancer son. The young man had missed breakfast earlier that morning, but he wasn’t begging food. The boy was definitely up to mischief. She went back to kneading the biscuit dough. “Your brother is not here,” she shrugged.
Johnny frowned. This wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. “Sorry about missin’ breakfast,” he murmured, sidling closer. He reached out, pinching a piece of the buttermilk dough. “Was schoolin’ that new filly for T’resa and kinda let time get away from me.” He smiled. It wasn’t too much of a fib; he had worked the little sorrel three go-rounds on the lunge line.
Maria smacked his fingers; leaving a fine dusting of flour on the back of his hand. “Usted necesita comunión y confesión, niño,” (You need communion and confession, child,) she scolded.
The youth popped the small ball of dough into his mouth. “That ain’t happenin’,” he muttered. When he saw the woman’s frown, he changed the subject. “You want me to go find everyone; get ‘em in here for lunch?” he smiled.
She shook her head. “Sonaré la campana de la cena.” (I will ring the dinner bell.) Taking out her rolling pin, she began preparing the dough for cutting.
Johnny knew he was being dismissed. What he didn’t know was why; although he was pretty damned certain the woman was purposely not telling him what she knew. Well, two could play the coy game, he reckoned.
He posted himself just beyond the kitchen door; hoisting himself up and over the plastered façade that fronted the slate-roofed pantry. The roof was sloped, but only slightly; just enough to allow the seasonal rains to drain into the tiled eaves before dropping into the rain barrels, or to spill into the flower beds below. Those drainage holes gave Johnny glimpses of the main courtyard and several outbuildings. He settled in to watch.
It didn’t take long. The aroma of Maria’s fresh rolls was drifting up from the vitrified clay chimney pipe; and Johnny could hear the sound as the woman pushed open the back door. Her step was light across the small, stone-floored patio. And then she rang the bell.
Johnny dropped down onto his belly; immediately regretting the move. The high-noon sun was beating down, helped along by the shifting southern winds that threatened to choke the air, and the youth could feel the heat of the roofing tiles through his shirt. It’s gonna be hotter’n hell, he thought; tasting the salty sweetness of sweat on his upper lip as he swiped it with his tongue. He was glad he had remembered his hat.
He heard voices below him, and lifted his head slightly to peer out through an arch-shaped drainage hole. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa were heading towards the house, strolling easily down the white stone-lined gravel pathway; the one leading from the icehouse.
Grinning widely, Johnny pulled back from the opening. Makes sense, he thought slyly. Leave it to Big Brother to hide something in a place he thinks I won’t go.
He waited until he heard the back kitchen door open; gave it a couple of minutes, and then he dropped lightly down onto the ground. Immediately, he took off in the direction of the ice house.
Scott had excused himself to go upstairs and to wash up for lunch; and to change shirts. Before meeting with Teresa in the ice house, he had ridden up to the pond in the north pasture; checking the sudden appearance of an unseasonably large film of slime-green algae that threatened to layer the entire surface of the man-made lake. He was sweaty now; and the odor of the lake sludge seemed to permeate his sweat-stained clothing.
Slipping out of his shirt, he wiped his face with the wash cloth and took a quick sponge-bath; grateful for the coolness of the water against his chest and neck. It wasn’t as invigorating as a full bath; but refreshing none-the-less and he grinned at his reflection in the mirror. Already, he was developing an early spring tan; and the sun had begun bleaching his ash-blond hair.
Going back to his armoire, he pulled out a fresh shirt, the tan one with the matching buttons and the dark blue and alternating rust color vertical and horizontal stripes; the one Johnny kidded him about being a baby-plaid. He slipped his right arm into the sleeve, looking down a bit as his fingers snagged; and then he saw it.
The catalog was peeking out from beneath the foot of his bed.
Oh, shit! Hurriedly, he finished dressing.
Johnny dog-trotted down the path to the ice house, intent on his mission. He didn’t have a lot of time. Maria always rang the dinner bell fifteen minutes before she actually started serving; in order to give everyone a chance to clean up. That thought pushed him into a sprint.
He swung the door to the ice house open; his breath momentarily taken away by the woosh of cold air from the dark interior. Then, his blue eyes scanning the sawdust littered floor, he saw the clear outline of boot and shoe tracks, both coming and going. Following the trail, he head into the pathway between the chunks of ice.
And then he saw it. Them. The noon sun had shifted, enough that shards of light pierced the narrow ventilating shafts high up on the walls near the roof; fingers of gold luminescence caressing the foil-covered boxes. It was, he thought, as if Heaven was actually pointing the way to the treasure. He could almost hear the angels singing Alleluia.
Greedily, he grabbed at the first stack of boxes, abruptly turning on his heel to make a break for it; pausing mid-step as he reconsidered. He spun around, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed the stacks of boxes. The fingers of his right hand drummed against his right thigh as he checked things out. He had grabbed five boxes off the first stack, leaving that particular column decidedly shorter than the others. Nope, he though. Too damned obvious. Not a good thing.
Quickly, he moved back towards the towers of candy. Deftly, he did a bit of reorganizing: evening out the stacks by replacing what he had taken, and then snagging one for each pile. Grinning, he stepped back. Yep. That was way better. All the towers were of equal height.
He took a quick look at the five boxes he had snuggled against his chest. Lips slightly pursed, the tip of his tongue showing, he debated peeking inside the first box. Ooops. Somehow his thumb had slipped and pried open the top.
It was a molded chocolate rabbit. Long ears, a nub of a tail. Sitting all perched up and proper, staring straight ahead with beady, unseeing eyes. Unable to help himself, Johnny popped the brown bunny out of its nest; and the next thing he knew he was sinking his teeth into the chocolate.
Whoa! Expecting something solid, he had bitten down, hard; so hard his front teeth slammed together, his jaws popping. Eyes watering, he withdrew the decapitated hare from his mouth. The damned thing was hollow! No — what was that stuff called? — marshmallow, no cream filling. NO FUCKING CHOCOLATE! He shook his head. It was like eating air. Chocolate air, he reconsidered. He consumed the rest of the rabbit, and licked his fingertips.
Well, that didn’t do much for his near-empty stomach. He popped the lid on the second box. Same thing. Hollow hare. Shrugging, he bolted it down. Then, remembering the lunch bell and knowing he was cutting things close; he headed back towards the door.
He skidded into the front hallway just as Teresa came down the stairs. “Hey,” he greeted, his hands going behind his back. It was awkward, hiding the remaining three boxes.
“You’re going to be late for lunch,” Teresa chided. “And Murdoch wasn’t all that happy when you weren’t at the table for breakfast.”
Johnny shot her a wide grin, his eyebrows rising slightly when he saw a flicker of something unrecognizable in her expression. He shrugged it off. “Just need to hang up my hat,” he lied, his head tilting as his cheek brushed the rawhide thong that kept the Stetson in place against his back.
She clucked her tongue in disbelief. “Well, hurry.” With that, she disappeared into the kitchen.
Shit. No time to make it up the stairs, he thought. He ducked into the Great Room.
Scott hesitated at the bottom of the rear stairwell; stealing himself. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the kitchen. Murdoch was already seated at the head of the table, and Teresa was just coming in through the other door. The blond cleared his throat. “Johnny found the Cadbury’s catalog,” he announced.
At the same time, Teresa popped in with, “Johnny has been eating chocolate. I saw it on his teeth.”
Murdoch had just taken a drink of his coffee. He was wishing for something stronger. “Sit,” he ordered; pointing at the chairs. He jabbed the same finger at his elder son. “You first.”
Scott sucked in a deep breath. “Johnny’s been in my room, and he found the catalog. It only follows he would see what I had checked off as I prepared my list.”
The tall Scot’s eyes swung to his ward. “Teresa.”
The girl was debating her answer; feeling a tad guilty for tattling. But Johnny on chocolate was a danger…well, to everyone; including himself. “He smiled at me when I caught him in the hallway, and I know I saw chocolate on his teeth. And…” she frowned. “He had his hands, both hands, behind his back.”
“I see,” the older man ground out. Before he could say another word, Johnny danced through the doorway.
“Smells great!” he declared, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. He pulled out his chair and plopped down, picking up his fork as Maria began placing the platters of food in the center of the table. Rising back up again, he speared himself a piece of fried chicken. Suddenly aware of three pairs of eyes staring hard at his pricked prize, he looked up. “What!?” he snapped; his butt still hovering above his chair seat.
Murdoch shook out his napkin, his voice deceptively calm. “It’s customary, John, to wait until Maria has all the food on the table before you start attacking it.”
Johnny sat back down; the chicken breast now dead center on his plate. “Missed breakfast,” he grouched. Then, to his brother, “you could pass those potatoes, ya know.”
Scott handed his brother the bowl of creamed peas instead.
Johnny’s right leg was bouncing up and down. “Funny, big brother,” he frowned, quickly passing the bowl on to his father. “Hey, Scott. Wanna biscuit?” Not waiting for an answer, he picked up a roll and tossed it at his brother. Not satisfied with Scott’s quick, one-handed catch; he picked up a second bun and launched it at Teresa. She was no where near as quick as his brother. In her attempt to dodge the missile, she fell off her chair; knocking her plate from the table and spilling her lemonade.
Johnny laughed and stood up, picking up more rolls to rapid fire at his siblings. Then, in a moment of pure, sugar-induced insanity, he picked up yet another biscuit and pitched it at his father. It was a direct hit. The ensuing silence was deafening.
They were in the hallway. Murdoch was in his I call the tune mode, and it was clear from his tone everyone was going to be dancing to the music. “Teresa, I want you to come with me to the ice house. We’re going to count those boxes of chocolate.” He turned to glare at his sons; both of his sons. Johnny was fidgeting, looking as if he was about to bolt and Scott…
Scott looked like he was seriously considering reenlisting in the army. Any army.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. This being a father thing was getting to be a real pain in the … He shook the thought away. “You,” he said, shaking a long finger at Johnny, “stay right here.” He turned to his eldest, who was standing facing his brother. “And you,” throwing up his hands, he shook his head. Suddenly, he reached out and smacked his elder son on the rear end; as hard as he could. Twice.
“Sir!” Scott’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. While he was accustomed to seeing, or hearing, his younger brother getting popped on his rear-end, this was an entirely new experience. And it hurt.
Johnny’s eyes were as wide as his brother’s. “Ho-ly shit!”
Murdoch paid no attention to the outburst from his younger son. His next words were directed at Scott. “You bought the chocolate.” He turned to his ward, his tone gentling. “You come with me, darling. We’re going to count that chocolate and get to the bottom of this.”
Waiting until his father and sister were out of the house and the door was closed, Johnny reached out and swatted his brother’s compact rear. “Seems like the Old Man already got to your bottom,” he smirked. “Hurt?”
“Yes!” Scott snapped. He grabbed a fistful of red shirt and put his brother up against the wall. He was — as much as it was possible considering his height — nose to nose with his younger sibling; and he was not laughing. “Where…is…the…chocolate?”
The brunet snorted. Like he was going to answer that question. Mentally, he began making up answers, finally settling with “What chocolate?”
Big brother wasn’t buying it. “You heard what Murdoch said, Johnny. He’s going to start taking names and kicking posteriors — our posteriors — if we…”
Grinning, Johnny stared up at his brother, “…if you,” he corrected, enjoying knowing his brother was in trouble.
Scott shut his eyes and took a small breath before continuing, “…if I don’t account for every single box of chocolate.” He tightened his grip on his brother’s shirt. “I ordered one hundred boxes. Seventy five of those boxes are for Teresa to pass out to her local groups. Twenty others are for passing out to our various friends, neighbors and people we do business with in town. When Murdoch and Teresa get back in here, all I’ll have to do is subtract their tally from the original number, and I’ll know exactly,” he repeated the word “exactly how many boxes you’ve liberated.”
One thing about Scott Johnny really admired. All that Harvard education and the ability to count without using his fingers and toes.
The blond repeated his original question. “Where is the chocolate?”
“Easter bunny took it?”
Scott’s eyes narrowed as he leaned in. “You’re nineteen, Johnny. I don’t know how to tell you this without being blunt, but there isn’t any Easter Bunny.” He closed in for the kill. “Or Santa Claus, for that matter.”
Johnny’s mouth turned down in a quick pout. “Well, thanks a lot for that, big brother! Next thing I know, you’re gonna try and tell me there ain’t no Tooth Fairy or Leprechauns.”
It was part of their game, the making-up-for-lost-time game they had enjoyed almost from the first moment they had appeared together in front of their father; and they played it with a vengeance. “No Tooth Fairy, no Leprechauns,” Scott ground out. “Deal with it.” And then, “where…is…the…chocolate?”
Johnny raised his hand and crooked a finger at his brother, wiggling it; gesturing for him to move in closer, as if he were going to tell him a secret. “What chocolate?” he whispered.
The front door opened, and Murdoch Lancer strode into the hallway. He was alone, his ward having chosen to not witness the impending slaughter of the not-so-innocent. “Teresa and I counted, and there are now ninety-five boxes of candy in the ice house. Your sister said there should be one hundred. Well?” he growled. The fact that the warm, southern winds (vientos sureños) were blowing in across the Pacific and it had turned unseasonably hot didn’t help his temper.
Scott stepped back from his brother, but didn’t let go. He simply pretended he was brushing some lint from his sibling’s red shirt as he mentally did the math. “Johnny was just about to tell me where the other five boxes are, sir,” he announced.
The brunet snorted. Like that had a chance in Hell of happening.
The tall Scot gave a curt nod of his head and removed his Stetson. He hung up his hat on the row of pegs close to his younger son’s head, and then took out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Just get it done,” he ordered. Then, turning towards the Great Room, he called out to the housekeeper. “Some lemonade please, Maria!”
“Ah, Murdoch?” Johnny peered out from behind his brother. “It’d be cooler in the kitchen,” he suggested. He pulled away from his sibling and nodded towards the sunlight that was pouring into the Great Room through the large, arched window behind his father’s desk. He flashed his father a broad, white-toothed grin.
Murdoch turned slightly to face his youngest off-spring; his right eye twitching. “I appreciate your concern, son,” he smiled suspiciously. He jabbed a long finger towards his desk. “But my desk is in there, not in the kitchen.” Without another word, he started down the stairs.
Johnny exhaled, a puff of air coming from between his lips. “Run,” he said softly.
Scott cocked his head. “What?”
The brunet was backing away from the arched door. Murdoch had just picked up stack of mail from the desk and was working his way around the large piece of furniture to his chair; which had been left as it was when he had vacated it: turned facing the leaded-glass window.
“Run.” Johnny repeated; the desperation clear.
Without looking down, Murdoch used one hand to turn his chair into its proper position; wincing as his fingers responded to the heat, the black leather hot from the sun. His lips were moving as he read the return address on the topmost envelope. Scott watched as his father dropped into the high-backed chair; saw the expression on his face. At the same time, he felt a blast of heat from the now open front door. Johnny was already hot-footing it across the courtyard and headed towards the barn.
Instinctively, Murdoch had prepared himself for the warmth he knew would be coming when he took his seat; careful to not lean back. What he wasn’t prepared for was the sensation at the seat of his pants. He dropped the letters onto the desk and pushed back the chair; sucking in his stomach as his gaze dropped to his crotch. His face began to color as he recognized the melting chocolate that was now spreading to his inner thighs; the dark stain spreading against the light tan of his brand new twills.
“John!!” He rose up from his seat, aware of the cardboard box that was clinging to his behind. “Scott!!” His voice rose; so much so the glasses on the drink table behind the couch danced against each other. “BOYS!!” This time the rafters actually seemed to lift; the mice in the attic skittering towards the eaves.
It was dark. They were on the hill overlooking Lancer; hunkered down behind the budding clusters of scrub that dotted the hillside. Behind them their mounts grazed languidly in the dew-soaked grass.
“How long?” Johnny asked, his teeth chattering. The wind had shifted, coming from the northwest now, blowing off the snow capped mountains; and it was cold. He fucking hated California. At least in Mexico when it was hot, it was hot; day and night.
Scott shook his head. “I can’t believe you left five boxes of chocolate on Murdoch’s chair and didn’t even have the good sense to close the curtains.”
Johnny was beating his hands against his upper arms in a vain attempt to keep warm. “Three,” he spat, without thinking.
The blond squinted, staring across at his sibling’s moon-lit face. “Three?”
Too late now, Johnny mused. “Ate the other two,” he confessed. “You know them rabbits was hollow?” he fussed. “Nothin’ inside ‘em but air. What the hell kind of chocolate is that?” He punched his brother’s arm.
Scott returned the punch; hard enough that his brother landed butt first onto the damp ground. Well, that explained the lunacy at the kitchen table. “The kind of chocolate you’re never going to see — or eat — again.” His tone was peevish.
Johnny was rubbing his arms now; pausing to put his hands under his armpits. It wasn’t helping. “I asked you how long? How long you think we gotta stay out here?” In their hurry to leave the ranch, they had left everything behind.
Scott stood up and walked over to where Cheval was ground hitched; puffs of white air coming as he exhaled through his nose. He said nothing, lifting the left stirrup and securing it atop the saddle horn. Nimbly, he loosened the cinch; running his fingers between the cotton cords and the horse’s ribs. He returned the stirrup to its proper place.
“C’mon, Scott!” Johnny muttered, the words coming in a hoarse whisper. “It’s getting’ fuckin’ cold! How long?”
The blond turned his attention to his bedroll; untying the straps and pulling it free. “Until Hell freezes over,” he answered. “If we’re lucky.” He headed back to the place where his brother was still squatting down beside the bushes. Scott shook out his bedroll and tossed one end over his brother’s shoulders.
Johnny’s gaze was locked on the hacienda, on the grey smoke that was gently wafting from the chimney of the Great Room’s fireplace. “He’s doin’ that on purpose, ya know,” he chattered; nodding towards the house. “Layin’ up a nice fire just to let us know he’s warm and we’re out here freezin’ our asses off.” Each word came with a puff of white; his breath instantly chilled by the night air.
Scott sat down and scooted closer to his sibling, drawing the blanket up over his own shoulders. They were freezing their asses off. Amongst other things. “I know,” he sighed. He was silent a moment. “We could just go into town,” he suggested. “Hide out there until it all blows over.” It wasn’t as if they had actually committed any real crime; anything that Murdoch could have them arrested for.
The brunet turned his head, staring hard at his brother’s profile. “You got any money?” he asked hopefully. In his escape from the ranch, he had travelled light; so light he hadn’t even retrieved his hat. Hell, he’d been lucky he’d been able to saddle Barranca, let alone grab his saddle bags.
The blond nodded his head; once. “Some,” he answered vaguely.
“Not enough to keep us in any grand style, little brother.” Scott was stroking his chin. “There is an alternative.”
Johnny was shivering. His butt felt like he was sitting in a snow bank; his cajones feeling like they had shrunk to the size of small marbles. Cold, glass marbles. “What alternative?” he asked.
Scott gestured towards the hacienda. “We could just go home, face the music; take whatever punishment Murdoch decides to mete out.”
“Are you crazy!?” Johnny thumped his brother on the back of his head. “Jesus. I could hear him yellin’ at us after we got through the arch, and he was still in the Great Room!” He shook his head. “Think Mateo might lend you some money,” he asked hopefully. “Maybe Reese Simmons?”
The blond shifted slightly. “To see Mateo, we’d have to go back to the ranch. And Reese is in Sacramento on business for his father.”
“One of the line shacks,” Johnny suggested; not really happy about the idea. The spring stock-up hadn’t been done yet, which meant dry beans, salted side meat and last year’s tinned milk.
“First place he’d look,” Scott observed. He was staring down at the hacienda, aware that all the lights in the Great Room were still on. He sighed. “I still think we should head into town.”
“Money.” Johnny said. Just the one word. It could get expensive when you were hiding out; especially when their father was such a sneaky bastard when he was looking for his sons. More than once, since his return home, Murdoch had paid for information. Even to the girls at the Silver Dollar and the Red Dog.
Scott hid a smile with his hand. “You do know, little brother, that Murdoch keeps cash in the safe in the Great Room.”
Johnny perked right up. “Yeah,” he drawled. “Our money.”
“Well, two thirds of it anyway,” Scott observed. He sweetened the pot. “Probably enough for a trip to Sacramento.”
“Justice Duvalier’s,” Johnny almost crooned; remembering. That would be worth the ass-chewing; and the punishment. “So, how we gonna get it? The…our money?”
Scott was smiling. “Well, one of us is going to have to keep watch; and the other one…” He shrugged. Brightening, he sought out his sibling’s face; now awash with the pale light of a full moon. “We could toss for it,” he suggested.
“What part of I ain’t got no money didn’t you hear, big brother?”
The blond sighed, and fished into his shirt pocket. “Okay. My coin; you toss. I get to call. Loser goes into the house.”
Without thinking, Johnny grabbed the coin; briefly balancing it on his clenched fist before giving it a flip with his thumb. It spun high up in the air, doing a series of quick rotations before he caught it and slapped it against his left forearm.
“Heads,” Scott called, leaning in.
Johnny inhaled and slowly lifted his right hand. “Shit,” he breathed.
Scott snatched the coin from his brother’s fingers.
It dawned on Johnny then; just what coin his sneaky older brother had used, and he scrambled to his feet. “Jackass!” he roared, charging his brother. “That was my coin.”
The blond was laughing. Already he had shoved the two-headed coin into the watch pocket in his pants. “All’s fair, little brother. I wouldn’t be in our father’s bad graces if you hadn’t snagged the chocolate.” He feinted to his left when his brother charged him a second time. Soon, the brothers were tumbling in the dirt.
“And I wouldn’t be in trouble if you hadn’t ordered the damned stuff!” Johnny retorted; drawing back a clenched fist.
Scott flipped his brother over; and together, the two young men rolled across the rough terrain. Finally, coming to rest atop his younger brother, Scott raised one hand in the universal sign of peace. “Something that won’t be happening again,” he murmured. He pushed himself up; extending his hand to his sibling. “At least, not in our father’s life time.”
Johnny took his brother’s hand, not giving in to the temptation to kick him in the gonads. “You know,” he grinned, dusting himself off, “lots of people get shot durin’ a robbery.”
The blond smacked his brother up beside the head; gently. “Yes. Usually the perpetrators. And, technically, we are not committing a robbery. We are just borrowing from the family till. If will make you feel any better, we’ll leave an I.O.U.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder, staring down at the house. The lights in the Great Room still burned brightly; the chimney still puffing pale smoke.
“Wonder what Maria cooked for supper,” Johnny mused, patting his stomach. “Jeez, I’m hungry.” He turned to face his brother. “I could snare us a couple o’ more rabbits,” he proposed, grinning mischievously. “Some more o’ them cotton-tails.” He snickered. What the hell kind of name was cotton tail for something that was nothin’ more than the albino second cousin of a lousy jack rabbit?
Scott shot his brother a harsh glare. “Don’t even go there,” he warned. The two small rabbits Johnny had snared earlier had been escapees from the pens behind the chicken coop; the white rabbits Teresa had insisted on raising to give as pets to the children at the mission. Johnny hadn’t shown him the hides until they were done eating. “She’s named every one of those rabbits.”
Johnny toyed the small pile of bones and the two skins laying beside the remnants of their now dormant campfire. “There goes Peter Cottontail,” he laughed, thinking how fortunate it was that one of the strays was the only mature buck, “and his Mrs.” The damned animals could breed like — well, like bunny rabbits. He immediately turned serious. “Money?” he asked.
The blond was still thinking about the rabbits and how vindictive Teresa might be if Johnny slipped up and confessed to bunny murder. “Just enough to take care of our needs for a couple of days…weeks…” he reconsidered, “…months; well, until Murdoch forgets about what happened.”
“Right,” Johnny said, his head bobbing. “So I take everything that ain’t nailed down, all the money, and we buy us a one-way ticket for…”
“Timbuktu,” Scott sighed. “It’s in Africa.” He knew Johnny would recognize the name; he had pointed out the continent on Murdoch’s globe when he’d shown his brother the vast world beyond Mexico and California.
Great! Johnny thought. He’d never been on a really big boat.
Murdoch Lancer was lounging back in his big leather chair beside the fireplace, his long legs crossed at the ankles and resting on the large matching ottoman. He was drinking from a pewter mug; his evening beverage of choice a mulled wine Maria had prepared to ward off the late night cold. In spite of the noonday mischief that had occurred, he was smiling. His boys — and that’s what they were at times; boys — were freezing their tails off up on the hill overlooking the hacienda, and he chuckled at the thought. He had laid the fire to spite them, and would have — if he could have convinced Maria — barbequed a fatted calf on the hearth to punish them even further. The aroma of roasting beef would have driven Johnny wild.
Lifting his drink to his lips, he drained the mug. It was time, he mused; time to turn down the lights and go to bed.
Except he wasn’t going to bed.
Setting down his mug, he began extinguishing the lanterns in the Great Room; beginning with the ceiling chandeliers. Then, with a grace belying his height and bulk, he moved from table to table, lamp to lamp. Finally, only the green-shaded lamp on his desk remained. Lifting the globe he, he blew out the flame. His next move was to close the drapes that sided the arched window; the room dissolving into blackness.
He moved to the dark corner by the fireplace; blending into the darkness. He had changed not only his pants after the melting chocolate calamity, but his shirt; and was attired now in entirely in black. Disappearing into the shadows, he began his wait.
They left their horses tethered just beyond the barn; reluctant to bring them closer to the house for fear of disturbing the animals still in the paddock. Sprinting single-file across the courtyard, they met up on the front patio; Scott pulling his brother close as they caught their breath.
Johnny was almost giddy with excitement. He loved it when he and his brother were involved in some nefarious scheme; especially any plot that involved doing it to their Old Man. There was always hell to pay, but the fun wasn’t in arriving at the destination; it was the getting there that provided all the entertainment. And this plan…this plan was damned near as good … nah, even better, than…
Aww, Hell, Johnny thought; nothin’ was better than the trip to Sacramento.
“Think we can get into the house without wakin’ anyone up?” Johnny peered across his brother’s shoulder at the front door.
“What we?”, Scott whispered. “The deal was you go in, and I stand watch.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed. “Watch what?” he asked.
“For anything,” Scott answered quickly. “Come on, little brother. It’s been almost an hour since all the lights went out.” He was quiet a moment. “Of course, we could just sneak in, go up to our rooms, and wait for Murdoch to find us in the morning.” Which is what his original plan was. Not that he could ever convince Johnny.
The brunet didn’t like that suggestion one bit. The pants the Old Man had been wearing were brand new, and he had this sinking sensation that even Maria wouldn’t be able to restore them to their original condition. “That ain’t happenin’,” he muttered. He straightened, shrugging his shoulders. “Okay. You watch.” He stepped around his brother, and then turned back. “So how do I get in the safe?”
Scott dug into his front pants pocket. “No problem. I have a key.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he looked up at his brother. “How come you always got a key to everything?” he groused.
Scott patted his brother’s head. “Because I’m the responsible one,” he answered. “Go.”
Shaking his head, Johnny headed for the door. Grimacing, he opened the massive portal; holding his breath. There was not one sound; no tell-tale creak. He turned back to wave at his brother, and then gave him the thumb’s up.
The blond watched as his brother disappeared into the hallway. He’d give his baby brother some time to completely work off the last of his chocolate high, and then he’d finagle him into staying home. Somehow.
Murdoch heard the soft whisper of leather across the tiled hallway; a slow smile coming. Johnny, he thought. Patiently, he waited for the light tread of his elder son. He’d let them go up the stairs, and then…
But he didn’t hear Scott’s footsteps. And Johnny…
Johnny was tip-toeing down the stairs into the Great Room.
The tall Scot watched as his youngest son headed for his desk. Johnny was moving like a man on a mission. So intent was the younger man in what he was doing, he didn’t even hear his stocking-footed father as he padded his way across the carpeted floor.
Johnny had dropped to one knee beside his father’s desk. Straining to see in the near pitch blackness, he lowered his head. He was fumbling with the lock on the swing-out door that concealed the hidden safe; a feeling of elation coming as he felt the tumblers shift. His fingers closing around the lever-like handle, he opened the hatch and reached in.
Murdoch’s right wrist closed around the nape of his younger son’s neck, and he leaned down; whispering in the boy’s ear. “And just what the Hell do you think you are doing?”
The brunet practically jumped out of his skin. Would have, if his Old Man didn’t have such a tight grip on the back of his neck.
Murdoch leaned in closer. “Where is your brother?”
Johnny couldn’t help himself. He laughed. How many times had he hung back when the Old Man was on a rant; only to hear that question asked of his older sibling. Scott hated it. Closing his eyes, he answered the question. “What brother?” Jeez. How hard was that? He was going to have to remember to tell Scott how it worked.
Okay. So maybe it didn’t work all that well. Johnny felt himself being pulled to his feet. “Outside,” he sighed.
Murdoch pulled his son along with him as he headed towards the couch. “Sit,” he ordered.
Johnny did as he was told. Except for the orange embers of the dying fire, the room was still extremely dark. “What now,” he murmured.
“We wait,” Murdoch answered. “And don’t you say even one more word.”
‘One more word,’ Johnny whispered, unable to help himself.
It didn’t take long.
Scott slowly opened the front door and stuck his head inside. Whispering, he called out his brother’s name. “Johnny?” Tip-toeing further into corridor, he tried again. “Johnny?”
Murdoch waited until Scott stepped down into the room. “Why don’t you join us, son?” he asked, his deep voice thundering into the quiet.
Oh, shit, Scott thought. He sucked in a lung full of air.
The lecture — delivered en route to the barn to take care of their horses — was remarkably short. The list of chores and newly defined rules, however, was epic. Scott was pretty sure The Iliad was only marginally shorter.
Together, the two brothers trudged up the stairs to the second floor. Johnny’s room was at the top of the staircase, just across from the upstairs water closet. He hesitated at the door, his hand resting on the doorknob. “Well, I guess it could’a been worse,” he murmured. “He could’a shot us.”
Scott laughed. “What fun would there be in that?” he asked. “The longer we live, the more he can torment us.”
Johnny nodded. “You think he meant it about there never bein’ ‘so much as a morsel’ of chocolate here at Lancer; forever?”
“Oh, he meant it all right,” Scott answered. He opened his mouth; rubbing at his ears and working his jaws. That part of the lecture had come through loud and clear.
“So it can get worse,” the younger man muttered. Life without chocolate… He wasn’t sure it was going to be that easy. He tapped his brother’s arm, a cunning grin coming. “Good thing he don’t own Baldemero’s, ain’t it?”
“Johnny,” Scott cautioned, shaking a finger beneath the younger man’s nose. He relented, turning the gesture into a light pat on the shoulder. “Good night, brother.”
The brunet’s head dropped. “Yeah,” he murmured. “‘Scott?”
Scott stopped several paces down the hallway and turned to face his sibling. “Yes, Johnny?”
“You got me back to the house figurin’ on convincin’ me to stay; to face the music, didn’t ya?”
There was a soft swooshing sound as Scott’s fingers brushed across the wall beside his bedroom door. “Yes,” he admitted. “That was the plan.”
This time Johnny’s laughter was just a bit louder. “Boy, we’re really great at makin’ plans, ain’t we, big brother?”
The family was at the breakfast table. Johnny stole a quick look at his father, smiling a bit when Murdoch looked up from his plate. One thing about the Old Man, he thought. Once the hollerin’ was over and the dues laid out, it was pretty much done. “Where’s T’resa?” he asked, nodding at the empty chair.
Murdoch had picked up the newspaper Maria had just brought to the table. “She decided she was ready to try out that little filly you’ve been schooling. Paco agreed to ride with her up into the hills.”
Scott had been reading the California Cattle Growers Association Magazine, and he closed it, carefully folding it as he placed it next to his plate. “Where in the hills, sir,” he asked amicably. To his younger brother, he mouthed a silent ‘did you get rid of the hides?’; dismayed when Johnny shook his head no.
Murdoch answered the question without looking up from his paper. “You know, son, that spot where she always wants me to stop so she can look down at the most beautiful place in the whole wild world.” He laughed.
Johnny was scarfing his eggs. Gulping the last of his milk, he pushed back his chair and stood up. “‘Scuse me. Think I’m gonna get an early start.”
Too late. From beyond the open French windows in the Great Room, he could hear the pounding of hooves as two horses approached the house at a full run. He could already hear Teresa screaming.
The Lancer Patriarch rose up quickly from his chair, bulling his way past his elder son as he headed for the hallway leading to the front door; Johnny and Scott quickly falling in behind. Murdoch reached the courtyard before his sons. “Are you hurt?” he called out. When there was no immediate answer, he addressed the girl’s young companion. “Did she fall?”
Paco was shaking his head. “No, Patrón.” He pointed towards the hills, and then let his arm drop. “We found…” He shrugged.
Teresa had dismounted, and she was heading straight for her brothers. “We found two,” she held up her hand displaying a “V” sign, “white rabbit skins,” she shouted. “From two of my white rabbits!” Fighting back the tears, she pointed a long, accusing finger at her dark-haired foster brother. “You killed the Easter Bunny,” she accused, “and Mrs. Easter Bunny!!” Sniffle, sniffle. “What am I going to tell the children?”
Then the realization struck her. In addition to the hides and the collection of small bones, there had also been signs of a campfire. “You ATE the Easter Bunny,” she shrieked.
Johnny danced away from his sister. He was trying hard not to laugh; no easy thing when he was running. “C’mon, T’resa,” he side-stepped as she lunged forward. “We were starvin’ up there!” Then, in a stroke of pure genius. “Scott cooked ‘em!”
Teresa immediately spun on her heel. “Scott Lancer!!”
Hands raised, the blond was backing up. Johnny, he saw, was already dashing across the yard towards the barn. Two can play this game, brother, he thought. “Johnny snared them.” Teresa immediately changed direction and raced off after her raven-haired brother.
Murdoch was shaking his head. He watched as Teresa disappeared into the barn; and Scott…
Scott had commandeered Paco’s horse, and was already on his way towards the arch.
“Tell me again why I’m doin’ this?” Johnny scratched at his nose; not the easiest thing to do under the circumstances. Teresa had painted and powdered his face to a pure white; and had rouged his nose to a ruddy pink.
Scott was staring straight ahead. There was no way on God’s green earth he could look at his brother and not burst out laughing. “Because you killed the Easter Bunny,” he answered. He bit his lower lip; stopping the smile.
Johnny’s head snapped to the right as he cast an evil glare in his brother’s direction. The movement made the long ears on the head-piece he was wearing flop every which way before drooping down to cover his nose. He blew them away. “You cooked ‘em, and I’m stuck wearing the stupid-ass costume?”
“I only cooked them after you snared them. And I don’t need a custom to pass out the chocolate,” Scott reminded, feeling a tad smug. He nodded politely at the Widow Hargiss as she passed by them with a plate of colored eggs. Leaning in towards his baby brother, he whispered, “You make a simply a…dor…able Easter Bunny,” he teased, perfectly mimicking Teresa’s voice.
The brunet’s nose actually twitched. It was the damned whiskers Teresa had glued beneath his nose. They itched, just like every damned thing else he was wearin’ made him itch. He scratched at them; his eyes widening as another herd of five and six-year-olds stampeded towards him. “Aw, Jeez!” he muttered. Teresa was right behind the kids; and she was grinning like a jackass.
“See, children? Just like I promised. The real Easter Bunny!”
Johnny sucked up, feeling the little hands pawing at him; at his fake belly. One of the kids, Junior Johansson, punched him. Then, out of pure meanness, the little shit kicked him in the shin. “That’s it,” he muttered. He shot a look at his sister. “Need ta use the jake,” he announced. When it looked like she was going to argue, he pulled out the stops; his voice rising. “Even the Easter Bunny has to sh…”
Horrified, Teresa’s hand went to her brother’s mouth. She recovered quickly, unpeeling her fingers. “Go,” she ordered, pointing at the door. “But you come right back!”
“Right,” Johnny answered. He bowed to the children and backed out the door.
They had parked the Lancer surrey right next to the back door; where it would remain in the shade and in close proximity if Scott needed extra candy. Standing on the leeward side of the buggy, Johnny began disrobing; removing the costume. The damned head piece first; with the long floppy, pink-lined ears and the oversized forehead. Next, he kicked out of the baggy yellow pants. (Who the Hell ever thought a rabbit would be wearin’ yellow pants with green suspenders?) Then the blue checked shirt, the red bow tie and the white vest. The thick pillow that had been his fat belly and the phony, over-sized feet were the last to go.
It didn’t take him any time at all to slip into his leather pants and his red shirt. He hopped on one foot as he tugged on his boots. And then he retrieved his hat from the back seat. There was no way in Hell he was going back inside the mad-house.
At least, not this mad-house.
Still, there was one chore to do; in case Teresa got all het up and sent Scott looking for him. Grinning, Johnny grabbed all the costume pieces, and headed for the jake.
God Bless the Simmons twins, he laughed, crossing himself. True to their word, they had stashed the items he had laid aside in the barn the previous night. It was all there: the burlap bags stuffed with straw, the nailed together framework.
Quickly, he set about reassembling the costume pieces. When he was through, he reckoned he had built the best scarecrow ever. Carefully, he propped the stuffed figure face-first against the side wall, and stepped back to admire his handiwork.
He was sweating now, and could feel the slow crawl as the powder Teresa had applied to his face seemed to melt away from his skin. Pulling his bandana out of his back pocket, he swiped at his face; grimacing as he saw the mess.
Glancing about to make sure he wasn’t being watched, the brunet mentally ticked off his plan. Get out of church. Get out of costume.
Get the chocolate.
He made a bee-line for the surrey, stopping only long enough to grab a half-dozen boxes of the candy that had been resting atop a canvas covered chunk of ice.
“You need to go get him, Scott,” Teresa begged.
“Teresa,” Scott swiped at the edge of his chin with a slender forefinger, “he really hasn’t been gone that long.”
Teresa was standing with her hands on the shoulders of a little girl who was holding a small Easter basket. “There are children who haven’t seen the Easter Bunny yet, Scott. Some of them just got here.”
Scott sighed. While he admired Teresa’s desire to do kind things and to be involved in community activities, he — like his brother — would value her efforts even more if she didn’t insist on volunteering their services as well. He clapped his hands together. “All right,” he said, giving in to the inevitable. “Let’s all go find the Easter Bunny!”
The blond swung open the back door; bowing gallantry. Teresa curtsied and then led the way, a half-dozen squealing children following behind. Scott took up the rear, stepping out into the bright afternoon.
He knew something was up when he saw Johnny leaning, face forward, in the dark shadows beside the outhouse. Dismissing the idea his brother had decided to simply do his business outside; he was swept with the usual concern that Johnny might not be feeling well. He reached out, drawing Teresa back. “Let me check him out, honey.” He smiled down at his sister. “Make sure he’s feeling well.”
Teresa nodded. Maybe she’d been too hard on her brother; putting up a fuss until Murdoch made him agree to help her. “All right,” she said, gathering the children to her.
Scott headed down the path, his attention focused on his sibling. He reached out, tapping his brother’s shoulder.
Johnny’s head fell off.
Johnny was sitting on a pile of loose straw in the livery barn’s loft; a growing stack of empty candy boxes next to his right knee. He’d been watching Teresa and Scott; watched as his brother reached out to touch his bunny scare crow.
All six children were screaming at the top of their lungs. ‘You killed the Easter Bunny!’ they wailed. ‘You chopped off his head!!’ Scott was down on one knee trying to repair the damange.
The brunet did a little decapitation of his own. Picking up yet another chocolate bunny, he bit off its head.
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