Kit and Southernfrau: Rocket’s Red Glare

Word Count 18,605

Disclaimer:  I had one, but I can’t remember where I put it.  I know it’s somewhere where the sun don’t shine, and I seem to recall SF and the other minions of the devil either helping me or cheering me on; something about ‘shove it in sideways’… 
Author’s Note: It was my intention to get this posted before the Holiday, but you know how much our boy hates his fun organized.

And the Rocket’s Red Glare… 

The last week in June and the first days of July had been unseasonably hot and wet.  Storms had rolled in from the Pacific, over the mountains and into the San Joaquin Valley with a vengeance.  The downpour had been immediately followed by a heat wave that seemed intent on boiling the excess water out of the ground.  As a result, both Lancer sons and the crews had been working around the clock; fighting the flooding at first, later, the mud that accumulated in the usually dry washes and trapped the cattle.

It was now Saturday night.  Murdoch Lancer neatly refolded his napkin and laid it carefully down beside his plate, just to the left of his fork.  “Well, I suppose — after the week we’ve had — the two of you are planning on going into town this evening?”  He was smiling when he said the words. 

Scott was finishing the last of his piece of apple pie.  “No, sir,” he answered, shaking his head.  “We,” he nodded towards his younger brother, “have other plans for this evening.”

Johnny was already half way out of his chair.  The fact the Old Man had actually suggested a trip to town was something akin to a miracle; and here was Boston — the supposedly older, wiser brother — turning him down.  “Ah, Scott.  ‘Bout those plans…”  He stood, poised, ready to flee.   “We,” he thumped his chest to emphasis his point, “ain’t got none.”

The blond was mid sip of his final drink of coffee.  He smiled across at his baby brother.  “Oh, but we do, Johnny.”  Putting down his cup, he leaned back slightly in his chair, the forefinger of his right hand tracing slow circles around the gold rim.  “In fact, we should probably go out to Teresa’s hen house,” he didn’t miss how the mention of Teresa’s pride and joy caused his brother to suddenly pale, “and discuss them.”   Turning slightly to face his father, he continued the fairy tale.  “Johnny and I were discussing Maria’s suggestion about adding another tier of nesting boxes for those new Rhode Island Reds.  With Teresa at the Pritchard’s for the weekend, it seems like the ideal time to do the work.”  He grinned up at his sibling.  “Think how surprised she’ll be, brother.”

Johnny was standing behind his chair now, his fingers wrapped tightly around the back rest, and he was giving his brother the evil eye.  He was a great fan of surprises; especially when it came to their pain-in-the-ass kid sister.  In fact, he’d already been working on a little bombshell for Miss Prissy Pants, a little something to get even for ratting him out to Maria over a missing chocolate cake.  “Yeah,” he drawled.  “Can’t hardly wait.”

Scott turned his smile back on his father.  “If you’ll excuse me, sir.”  He waited for the customary nod before he pushed back the chair and stood up.

The younger Lancer son fell in right behind his brother; only to be stopped midstride as Murdoch’s voice cut into the evening quiet.  “John.”

Johnny’s shoulders lifted a bit before relaxing, and he hesitated a brief moment before turning back to face his father.  He knew what the man wanted.  Manners had become a number one priority in his father’s book of rules — yeah, the Old Man had one, too — and there were a lot of yes, sir’s, no sir’s, please and thank you’s being tossed around lately.  But still he couldn’t yield.  “What he said,” he ventured, blue eyes dancing as he smiled and jerked his head in the general direction of his brother, who was already standing in the hallway.

“John.”  This time, the word came more softly, drawn out; and with a definite edge of impatience.

Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ, the younger man fumed silently.  Behind him, he heard his smart-assed brother whisper ‘Just do it, brother.’  Still…

Finally, he gave in.  But he was going to do it his way.  “Con su permiso, Papí,” (With your permission,) he breathed.

The corners of Murdoch’s mouth quirked up at the endearment, and just as quickly returned to their original position; the perpetual frown he usually wore when dealing with his youngest when the boy was pulling a con.  “Now was that so difficult, son?” he asked amicably, a hint of humor in his voice.  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Go.”

Johnny was off like a shot.

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

“You were serious about this shit,” the younger man groused.  There was a series of phhht sounds as he attempted to spit away bits of feathers and dry bedding that were swirling about and above his head.  “Fuckin’ Saturday night, the Old Man’s willin’ to let us off the leash, and you,” he repeated the word, thrusting a finger at his brother’s face, “you got us out here to build stupid boxes for T’resa’s stupid chickens!”

Scott ignored his brother’s outburst.  “I paid Walt and Frank to build the boxes,” he announced, nodding towards the back of the hen house, “and they’ve already put them up.  What I brought you here for, little brother, was to find out just what devious plan you’ve got up your sleeve to get even with Teresa for telling on you about that cake Maria had cooling.”

Johnny was raking the feathers out of his too-long hair.  “Ain’t got no devious plan,” he pouted.  It was a blatant lie, poorly told.  Because the cake had been intended as a gift for Aggie Conway, Teresa’s tattling had earned him a rather harsh lecture from the Old Man and three nights of dish-duty under Maria’s watchful eyes; and he intended to get even.  Hell, his fingers were still all puckered from the hot water. 

The blond wasn’t buying it.  “Now, we can do this the easy way, little brother, or the hard way.”  When Johnny turned to head for the door, he grabbed him by the collar and the belt and pulled him back.  “You will definitely not enjoy the hard way!” To make his point, he tugged hard at the boy’s belt.

“Holy shit, Boston!” Johnny almost shrieked, the pinch at his crotch causing his voice to rise considerably.  “Let go!”

Scott shook his head.  “Not until you tell me what nefarious scheme you’ve concocted to take revenge on our fair Teresa.”  His right hand still firmly wrapped around his brother’s shirt collar, he began patrolling the room; the younger man in tow.  Mentally, as he moved from box to box, he was counting the chickens.  It appeared they were all there, in one piece, and alive.  Even the plump, prized red Teresa had designated as the official brood hen; she of the impeccable breeding and talent for laying double-yolked eggs.   Esmeralda.

A shifting of position, an ever-so-subtle backing away, immediately alerted the elder Lancer son to his baby brother’s sudden reluctance to be in front of Esmeralda’s nest.  With his left hand — his right was still full of Johnny’s collar and several strands of dark hair — he gingerly began probing under the plump hen.  He winced as the biddy pecked at his forearm.  Why Teresa had any great affection for the man-eating birds was still a mystery.  It wasn’t as though the ranch didn’t, thanks to Johnny and his penchant for picking up strays, team with a variety of cats, dogs and other creatures with more sense and better manners. “You haven’t destroyed Esmeralda’s eggs, have you, little brother?” 

Johnny grinned at the question.  He hated lying to his brother, and was glad he didn’t have to.  “No,” he replied, a tad too quickly.  “I swear, Boston.  I didn’t destroy no eggs.”  And he hadn’t. 

Scott canted his head slightly and eyed his brother with the usual amount of suspicion.   Carefully, he withdrew a warm egg and held it up for inspection; an act that caused Esmeralda to squawk loudly and increase her attacks.  “This is not a chicken egg, Johnny,” he proclaimed.  Ignoring the incessant pecking of the overly protective hen, he carefully rotated the egg.  It was soft beige in color, with some rust colored mottling; and the size was all wrong.  His eyes narrowed as he realized just what it was he was holding.  “This is a red-tailed hawk egg,” he accused.

“It is?”  The brunet’s eyes widened in surprise; as if he had forgotten all about the nest he and his brother had discovered in the sandstone cliffs overlooking the Ribbon.  He scratched at his ear with his right forefinger.  “Well, how the hell do you ‘spose that got here?”

Scott’s right hand shifted from his brother’s collar to the younger man’s exposed wrist.  There were several just-beginning-to-heal tear marks on the tanned flesh, some of them a bit redder than the blond cared to see.  “Where…are…Esmeralda’s…eggs?” he ground out.  He knew he was not going to like the answer.

Johnny debated lying this time; but that would only make Scott that much more tetchy.  He tried the next best thing; the face Scott always referred to as his Oliver Twist poor orphan boy look.  It wasn’t working.  “Up in the mama hawk’s nest,” he said finally, sighing.  Then, knowing he needed the defense:  “Hey.  I couldn’t just toss ‘em to the pigs.  You know how pissed T’resa would’ a been if I done that!”

Esmeralda was in full worried mother mode and was now squawking even louder; stretching her neck and pecking at Scott’s unprotected back and shoulder, her distress increasing as she picked up the muted peeping of the chick that was now stirring within  the shell that enclosed its small universe.  Scott quickly turned and shoved the egg back under the hen, grimacing when he realized there were more, and of varying sizes.  He spun around to face his brother.  “You couldn’t just have left well enough alone?”  Raising his hand to thwart off any response, he nailed his brother with a glare that would have made Murdoch Lancer proud.  “And it never occurred to you what will happen to those chicks when they hatch?”  Or to Esmeralda when her adopted brood began cannibalizing their foster mother?

The younger man laughed.  “Aw, hell, Scott.  Them birds are even dumber then the cows we got!”  He wasn’t about to say there were a couple of snapping turtle and snake eggs tossed into the mix.  “Just think about it.  Esmeralda struttin’ around the chicken yard, all them baby hawks paradin’ along behind her.”  He laughed.  “And T’resa!” He could picture it now, T’resa trying to make pets out of the baby chicken hawks; all confused about how they came about and what Esmeralda must have been doin’ to get a batch of chicken-hawk fertilized eggs.  So much for good breeding.

Scott simply threw up his hands.  There was going to be dire consequences before this was over.   “I give up,” he muttered, shaking his head.  “You can explain the mix up to our father and Teresa after all hell breaks loose.”  He began dusting himself off and headed towards the door.  “As for me, I’m going to concentrate on the 4th of July celebration in Green River.”

Hands on hips, Johnny stood alone in the middle of the hen house, a worried frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.  He hadn’t given much thought to what would happen when the eggs hatched.  Hell, his only concern had been getting even with T’resa for the cake thing…  Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.  He spun on his heel and headed for the door his brother had just slammed shut.  “Hey, Scott!” he called.

The blond was heading for the barn when Johnny caught up with him.  His stride lengthened as he brushed his younger brother’s hand aside.  “No.”

Johnny tugged at his brother’s elbow.  “C’mon, brother.  Help me out here.” He was dog-trotting now to keep up; backwards as he turned to face his sibling.  “You don’t even know what I was goin’ to ask.”

They had reached the barn, and Scott was shoving the large, hanging door to one side.  “You were going to ask me to help you out of the mess with Esmeralda.”  He crossed the threshold.  “Ain’t happenin’.”

The younger man couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  What the Hell good was it to have a big brother if he wasn’t willing to help out now and again?  “So you’re sayin’ you’re just goin’ to stand by and watch the Old Man tear me a new one?”  Not to mention T’resa and Maria.  A sly smile crept across his features.  “Well, guess the only thing I can do is go back up to that mama hawk’s nest, swap the chicken eggs for the hawk eggs…”  He sighed and began rubbing at his right forearm, wincing a bit as if he was in pain.  When there was no response from his brother, he tried again; this time unbuttoning his sleeve and poking at the lines of scratches.  “‘Course she’ll probably claw the hell out of me again; maybe even get me in the eyes.  Hell, there I’d be, blind as a bat; up there on that ledge…”

Scott was loading something into the wagon; several somethings.  If he was concerned over what his brother was babbling about, it wasn’t apparent.  Hefting a long, triangular shaped box into the wagon, he finally spoke.  “Here’s a small piece of advice you have consistently ignored in the past, little brother; but worthy of repeating.  How about, just once, actually thinking before you put one of your hare-brained schemes into action?”

Johnny’s head came up.  “Kinda late for that, ain’t it?” he snapped.

“It’s not like I haven’t made the same suggestion before,” Scott grumbled.  “Move,” he ordered; gesturing with is hand.

“So you’re tellin’ me you ain’t goin’ to help?”  Johnny stood stock still.

“Not this time,” Scott answered; lifting his brother up bodily and setting him aside.  “Every time I try to help you, Johnny, it ends up being my fault.  No matter what you’ve done, or how reckless you’ve decided to be, everything gets twisted all around, and Murdoch lays it on my shoulders.  This time you are on your own.”

Johnny actually managed to look hurt.  The worry was real.  “C’mon, big brother,” he cajoled.  “If you can’t figure somethin’ out, and we don’t get it fixed; I’ll tell Murdoch it was all me, and you didn’t know nothin’ about it.  Promise.”  He solemnly raised his right hand.

Scott pushed his way past his brother, heading for a dark corner next to the tack room.  “And Murdoch will remind me I should have been watching you better.”  He bit his lip, stopping the smile.  He so loved yanking his baby brother’s chain.  Pulling a tarp away from the stack of wooden crates, he stood back.  “So, are you going to help me with this, or not?”   When the younger man didn’t move, he pretended to relent.  “Señora Baldemero has several setting hens, Johnny.  We’ll purchase some fertilized eggs from her, dispose of the hawk eggs…” his eyes narrowed, “…there is no way you are going back up to that nest…and Teresa and Murdoch will be none the wiser.”

Johnny let out a small breath of air, relief flooding his face.  “That wasn’t funny, ya know; actin’ like you weren’t gonna help.”  Curious, he took a step closer to where his brother was standing.  “What’s all this?”  He leaned in closer for a look at the wooden crate.  There were strange symbols painted across the top.

“Fireworks,” Scott answered, slapping the box with his palm. 

The brunet’s brow furrowed, his eyes narrowing.  His lips suddenly parted in a toothy grin.  “San Francisco,” he crowed.

“Our little side trip to China Town,” Scott acknowledged.  “I placed the order before we left town to come home.”

Johnny was thinking back to their trip to the big city and Scott’s excitement in taking him on a tour.  As was his usual practice, big brother had read everything he could get his hands on about San Francisco, and had delighted in his job as guide.  “Murdoch know about this?” he asked.

“Of course,” Scott answered.  “Lancer is donating the fireworks for the celebration.”  What he neglected to say was that both he and Murdoch had decided that not telling Johnny about the arrangement ahead of time was a prudent decision.  He picked up the top most box and slid it into the wagon.  “The Simmons’ are contributing, too; and Reese and I are going to set up the display.”

There was another crate, and Johnny hefted it.  “What display?” he asked.

Scott was pulling on his gloves.  “The fireworks display,” he answered.  “You know.”  Using one hand, he started writing in the air; and he was actually singing.  “‘The rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air…’” 

Johnny looked at his brother as if he was crazy.  “‘scuse me?”

The blond was shaking his head.  “Fourth of July,” he prompted.  “Independence Day.”  Then, realizing Johnny was in all likelihood not familiar with the tradition, he tried again.  “Big holiday here in the colonies.”  Nothing.  “Think Cinco de Mayo.”

That, the younger man understood.  Kind of.  “Dancin’, drinkin’ and diddlin’,” he grinned, remembering the fiestas in the seedier parts of Ciudad Juárez, where free food and drinks were more important than history lessons.

Scott boxed his brother’s ears.  “Fireworks, Freedom, and Father of Our Country speeches,” he chided. 

Johnny was still not particularly impressed.  “So how many strings of firecrackers you got in there?” he asked, his fingers thumping against the top of the crate.

“Firecrackers,” Scott snorted.  “We’re not talking about those little strings of poppers you tossed the day Murdoch hauled you over to Zeke’s for that haircut.”  He shook his head.  “Don’t you remember anything I told you about the Chinese; about how they invented gunpowder?  What we’ve got here, little brother, is sky rockets, flares, pin wheels…”

The younger man’s eyes were beginning to dance.  “Bombs?” he inquired nonchalantly, remembering the singing.

Scott bent down to pick up the last of the boxes.  “Bursting in air,” he replied.  “Toss me that tarp.  We’ll be hauling these into town in the morning.”

Johnny’s right hand was stroking the top of the larger crate.  “Tomorrow’s the 3rd,” he said.

“Very good, little brother,” Scott teased, patting the younger man’s head.  “It’s also Sunday, and not a work day.  The town council decided it would be less disruptive to celebrate the Holiday on the weekend instead of Monday.”

The brunet snickered.  “Figures,” he groused.  “Can’t see Mayor Higgs closin’ up shop on a Monday.  Might mean the cheap bastard couldn’t squeeze some poor sucker out of a dollar for that shitty stuff he keeps pushin’.”

Scott reached out, laying a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “May I remind you, little brother, our father is also a voting member of the council?”

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

Johnny skidded to a stop, pausing in the doorway just long enough to rake his fingers through his sleep tousled hair.  Then, the aroma of bacon and scrambled eggs teasing his senses, he headed for the kitchen.  “Hey,” he greeted, slipping into his chair.

Murdoch looked up from his coffee, his right eyebrow arching as he surveyed his younger son.  “Have you forgotten what day it is, son?” he asked.

Puzzled, Johnny glanced in father’s direction.  “Nope,” he answered, shrugging.  He grabbed a biscuit and began spreading it with copious amounts of butter and strawberry preserves.

“Then would you care to tell me why you haven’t dressed for church?”  Murdoch’s fingers were drumming on the table now, in a perfect one-two-three-four cadence.

“Good morning, sir,” Scott pulled out his chair and sat down.  Aware of the awkward silence, he canted his head and cast a wary eye at his sibling.  “Brother,” he greeted.  Johnny was dressed in his regular work clothes; the brown leather calzoneras and his faded red shirt.

“Church,” Murdoch said.  Just the one word; more of a demand than a question.

Johnny was frowning at his brother.  Scott was dressed in his usual Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.  “Scott said we were haulin’ the fireworks into town this mornin’.  Said it’s a Holiday.”

Murdoch frowned.  “If you had been paying attention to last Sunday’s announcements during church, John, you would have heard Mrs. McIntyre telling the congregation about the festivities the Ladies Guild have planned for this afternoon and this evening.”

Undeterred — stubborn — Johnny repeated himself.  “But it’s still a Holiday, right?  Independence Day and all?”

Picking up his newspaper, Murdoch hesitated before answering.  “God does not take Holidays, John.  You have exactly ten minutes to get upstairs and change clothes.”  End of discussion.

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

It was hot; ungodly hot.  Johnny was fidgeting in his seat, tugging at his collar.  Teresa, who was seated behind him with Molly Pritchard, reached out and smacked his fingers.  That was more than enough to make him immediately turn around and swat her back.  He was instantly rebuked for his transgression by his father, who tugged at his ear and made him face forward.  “Dammit!” he muttered, rubbing the side of his head.  “She hit me first.”

Murdoch’s eyes were fastened on the pulpit.  “Shush!”

Johnny hunkered down in his seat.  He didn’t give a damn what Scott had told him they should do with the hawk eggs.  That was twice now Teresa had gotten him into trouble; and she was going to pay.

Scott turned a sympathetic eye on his sibling and leaned in to whisper in his ear.  “Patience, little brother.  In another five minutes we’re going to be outside, and there’s going to be food.”   He finished speaking just as Reverend McIntyre invited everyone to stand for the closing hymn: Blest be the Tie That Binds, verses 1 and 4.  It was, Scott thought, considering the diverse group of people that were assembled within the sanctuary, a most appropriate tune.  Former Union and Confederate soldiers and their families had attended the service in honor of the bold declaration made by their forefathers, unified now in their hope the Nation would continue to heal.

He found himself roused from his musings by a not so subtle tug on his elbow as Johnny pulled him towards the aisle.  They were out of the building in record time.  “Whoa, brother,” he called.

Johnny was already at the bottom of the stairs when he turned to face  his brother.  He kept walking, backwards.  “Gonna find Ned and Tim,” he grinned, white teeth flashing.  “And all that food you were talkin’ about!”

Scott laughed and waved his brother away.  “Save some for me!”

“And where’s he off to?”  Murdoch joined his elder son, watching as Johnny danced his way through the milling crowd.  It did him good to watch the boy; to see the way people clapped his son on the back as he passed, or — in the case of the Widow Hargis — shook their fingers at him.

“He’s going to find the twins,” Scott answered.  Johnny had already taken off his jacket and it was fluttering behind him as he sprinted past the large cottonwood that dominated the small square.  “And the food tables.”  His smile grew as he watched Teresa and Molly Pritchard lift their skirts slightly as they ran in a vain attempt to catch up.   “Shall we?” he invited, bowing slightly as he gestured with his right hand.

Murdoch adjusted the brim of his grey Stetson, smoothing his hair in place before putting on the hat.  “Don’t you and Reese have some things to attend to, son?”

Scott was shoulder to shoulder with his father as they headed down the stairs.  “Not yet, sir.  We’ve mapped everything out, and will begin setting up in earnest just as the sun goes down.”

The tall Scot’s face softened into a smile that radiated paternal pride.  His elder son obviously had matters well in hand, and his youngest…  His smile grew as he watched Johnny and the Simmons twins crow-hopped across the finish line of the potato sack race.  Life was good, and all was well with the world.

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

Johnny and the twins sprinted around the back corner of the church building, all three of them flushed and out of breath.  They stood with their backs pressed against the clapboard siding, sweat rolling off their foreheads.

“Think they’ll find us?” Ned panted.  He bent forward at the waist taking great gulps of air.

Tim cautiously peered around the corner.  Teresa, Molly Pritchard and another friend from town, Belinda, were headed in the opposite direction; obviously in search of their quarry.  “Nah,” he said, pulling his head back.  Grinning, he smacked Johnny’s flat belly with the back of his hand.  “Hide ‘n’ seek,” he laughed.  “And you got ‘em to count to a hundred.”

Johnny was wiping the sweat from his eyes.  “You whisperin’ about hidin’ in the livery wasn’t such a bad idea, either, little Timmy,” he teased, taking a swing at his friend’s head.

Ned snickered.  “Girls sure can be dumb,” he volunteered.

There was a chuffing sound as Johnny stifled a laugh.  “Girls sure can be a pain in the ass.” 

Tim had dropped down on his haunches, his buttocks resting on his heels.  “Heard T’resa telling Molly and Belinda about the chocolate cake thing.” He squinted up at his friend.  “Said Maria had you doin’ dishes for three whole days.”

Johnny kicked at a dried clump of grass.  “T’resa’s got a big mouth,” he groused.  Absently, he dug at the ground with his heel, cutting three precise lines into the dirt.  Tattlin’, tappin’ him on his head durin’ church; talkin’ behind his back.  Three things to get even for now.  “Anything goin’ on in town besides all this?” he waved his hand in the general direction of the games that were still going on; the noise.

Ned shook his head.  “Nope.  Everything’s locked up tighter than a drum.  Even Val closed up for the day, ‘cept I did see ‘im at the barbeque pit with that Sarah Townsend woman and her kids.”  He shrugged.  “Silver Dollar and the Red Dog are closed; even the upstairs part.  Mayor Higgs’ idea; him and the Widow Hargis.”  Stooping down to pick up a handful of gravel, he allowed the sand to trickle between his fingers before beginning to lob the pebbles at an anthill.  “You seen that cannon old Higgs got set up in the town square?  Claims his grandpa or somethin’ used it to fight the British during the Revolution.”

If Johnny had heard his friend, it wasn’t apparent.  But he had been listening, all right.  Mostly to that part about Val and the Townsend woman.  It was a sore subject for him, one that prompted feelings of jealousy.  He leaned back against the shady wall, welcoming the cool before slipping down until he, too, was resting on his haunches and shoulder to shoulder with Tim.

Picking up a stick, Ned poked at Johnny’s shoulder.  “Hey.  You hear what I said about the cannon?”

Johnny swatted the stick away.  “Yeah, I fuckin’ heard you,” he lied.  He reached out with his arm, hooking Ned’s legs behind the knees and dumping the youth on the ground.  “So, if the British did all that fightin’ back around Boston, how the hell did the cannon get all the way out here?”  Old Higgs was a typical politician; a bull-shitter.  The corner of Johnny’s mouth quirked up in a half smile.   He was a pretty fair bull-shitter himself when he had a mind to.  “Well?” he demanded.

Ned was brushing off the seat of his britches.  “His nephew brought it with him.”

“Nephew?” Johnny echoed.

“Yep.”  This from Tim.  “Wilbur.”  He said the name, drawing it out and waggling a limp wrist at his companions.  “Mayor Higgs said he was comin’ here to learn the general store business.  Said he was goin’ to train the boy up proper, what with him not havin’ any son of his own.”  He leaned in, the words coming in a mock whisper.  “I heard Pa tellin’ Reese that ole Wilbur got in some trouble back in his home town, and his folks had to send him here, or they were gonna put him in reform school.”

That piqued Johnny’s interest.  Grinning from ear to ear, he levered himself up from the dirt.  “That right?”  Mayor Higgs was always yapping to everyone that would listen about what a bad influence Johnny Lancer was on all the young people in Green River.  “So where is this Wilbur?”

Ned was peeking around the corner of the building.  “Right now, he’s pantin’ around T’resa, Molly and Belinda.”   He jerked back from the corner; his shoulders pressed against the wall.  “Shit!  I think Belinda spotted me.”

Johnny brushed his pants off and straightened his collar.  Looking around for his jacket, he finally gave it up as lost, although he didn’t have idea of where.  “So let’s go see the girls,” he grinned.

Ned and Tim exchanged a long look.  Johnny’s tone was pretty damned cocky right now; not always a good thing.  The brothers grinned at each other.  Then again, Johnny being cocky could be a hell of a lot of fun.  They opted for the notion of fun.  Putting Johnny between them, they looped their arms around his shoulders and headed out.

Teresa met them just as they turned the corner.  “Johnny Lancer!   Just where have you been?”  She stood, hands on her hips; one foot tapping against the hard turf.  Belinda and Molly were right behind her.

“Hiding,” he answered, smiling.  “Pretty good, huh?” he gloated.  “You never did find us.”

The girl took several steps forward, her nose crinkling.  “Have you been drinking?”  Her eyes swung to the Simmons twins.  “Well?”

Tim reached out and tweaked the girl’s cheek.  “No.  But we are gettin’ thirsty.”  His face lit up when a pudgy looking youth huffed up to where Teresa was standing.  “Why, Wilbur,” he greeted.  “You been messin’ around with my girl?”

Teresa’s cheeks flushed, and she stamped her foot.  “I am not your girl, Tim Simmons!”  Vindictive, she grabbed Wilbur’s arm.  The young man puffed up his chest and patted the back of the girl’s hand.  Spiteful, Teresa returned the gesture, watching as Tim squirmed.  “And Wilbur is too much of a gentleman to behave in such a disgraceful way.”

Johnny took a few steps forward.  “Is that right?” he asked.  He took his time making a slow circle around the pair; leaning in so close towards the back of Wilbur’s neck he could actually see the young man’s hair move as he passed him by.  “T’resa’s my sister, Wilbur,” he announced.  “You wouldn’t be thinkin’ of triflin’ with her, would you.”  He’d completed his circuit and was now face to face with the older boy.

It took everything Johnny had to keep a straight face.  Wilbur was damned near a mirror image of his uncle, and the resemblance made Johnny think.  He sucked in his bottom lip, biting down as, unbidden, randy images began to assault his brain.  Mayor Higgs naked as a jaybird frolickin’ with Wilbur’s mother.  Well, what he pictured as Wilbur’s mother.  He figured the woman had to be dog butt ugly; ‘cause her pup certainly was.  Leaning in, he whispered in the turd’s ear.  “You know who I am, Wilbur?  And just how much of a mistake it would be to mess with T’resa?”

Tim and Ned Simmons had turned completely around and were holding their sides in an attempt to stop the rib-busting laughter.  It was a losing battle. 

Teresa’s face was bright red now, and Johnny could swear he saw steam coming out of her ears.  He reached out, giving the tip of her nose a little pinch.  Laughing, he sucked his stomach in as Teresa took a swing at him; and danced away from the girl.  “Just lookin’ out for you,” he teased.  He was just about to tweak her nose again when he felt someone’s fingers close around his arm.  “Hey!  What the hell are you doing?”

Scott was laughing, too. “Apparently, my job; looking out for you.”  He shook a finger at Teresa, warning her off.   “What’s going on?”

Johnny’s smile was angelic.  “Nothin’,” he shrugged.  Reaching out, he looped his left arm around Wilbur’s shoulder and pulled him close; brushing off the front of the youth’s jacket.  “Just funnin’ a little bit with old Wilbur, here.  Like we always do when someone new comes to town.”

Seeing an opportunity to help out their compadre, the twins stepped forward.  “That’s right, Boston,” Ned volunteered.  “Like the snipe huntin’ and stuff.”  He turned to Belinda, winking at her.  “Like we did with your brother, Belinda.  When you first came to town.”  Tim was nodding like a marionette. 

Belinda giggled.  Her brother was pretty mad when he discovered there was no such thing as a snipe.  She’d loved the way the twins and Johnny had made her older brother look like an idiot.  And now she felt like a co-conspirator.  “It was all in fun, Mr. Lancer,” she murmured.  “Isn’t that right, Teresa?”

Teresa’s right eyebrow arched.  Johnny’s idea of fun — which was now obviously shared by Belinda — was certainly not her cup of tea.  When she spied Molly nodding her head in agreement, she gave up.  “Yes,” she muttered.  “All in fun.”

Scott eyed the whole group with a definite air of suspicion.  Even Wilbur seemed to be joining in the conspiracy.   “Is that how you feel, Wilbur?”  He couldn’t shake the feeling he was talking to a gnome.

The mayor’s nephew and heir puffed himself up, sure and certain he was about to embark on some deep, lifelong friendships.  His uncle would be so proud.  “Yeth,” he answered, nodding his head.

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

Another of Teresa’s town friends had joined the trio, a compact little blond Johnny called Charlie.  Her given name was Charlotte, but when she was in the company of Johnny and the Simmons’ twin (which she often was now on Sunday’s after church) she preferred the appellation.  She was a bit older than Teresa and Molly, and decidedly more clever in an urbane sort of way.  In fact, like Belinda, she had picked up right away that Johnny kept asking Wilbur questions that required answers using “s” words. 

Now, tagging along behind Johnny in a slow parade around the cannon, she addressed young Mr. Higgs.  “So, this is where they’re going to leave the cannon sitting?”  She smiled coyly.

Wilbur placed a pudgy hand on the suspiciously new looking piece of field artillery.  It had been placed in the middle of a large circle that was ringed by white-washed stones.  Flowers had been planted, and there was a very neat, pyramid of cannon balls.  “Yeth,” he answered proudly.  “My Uncle thaid that after the dedication, the cannon will thit right here forever.”

Johnny was making the final trip around the single shot howitzer, his fingers tapping along the contoured, heavy black metal.  “So where’d he say this came from?” he asked.  Wilbur had told them the story as they were heading for the square, but he really wanted to hear it again.  So did the twins.

Once again, Wilbur went into his miniature Mayor Higgs mode; posturing a bit as he began his speech.  “It wath the Thecond Battle of Tharatoga,” he started.  “October Theventh, Theventeen theventy theven.”  It he was aware of the giggling that was going on, it didn’t show.  He beamed, feeling really clever.  “That’s when our gallant tholdiers beat the thit of the Brith!” 

Johnny was about to encourage Wilbur to continue when he looked up and suddenly found himself face to face with his brother.  It was obvious from the look on Boston’s face he’d been there awhile.  Still, he couldn’t resist.  “Hey, Wilbur.  Guess I forgot my manners earlier.  This is my brother, Scott. Scott, this is Wilbur Higgs.”

Wilbur extended his hand.  “Thcott.”  The good Lancer son, he thought, remembering his Uncle’s long inventory of people he needed to meet and cultivate.  “Ith my pleathure, thir.”

Scott accepted the younger man’s hand, but his attention was on his snickering siblings and their companions.  He chose to address Teresa and the young ladies first.  “Mrs. McIntyre and the Ladies Guild are getting the supper tables put together.  I’m sure they could use your help.”

Teresa recognized her older brother’s tone.  She nodded, and then signaled for her friends to follow her.  She was actually feeling sorry for Johnny.

“Reese is looking for you two,” Scott announced, looking at the twins.  He took a deep breath as the pair departed, and then turned back to his brother and Wilbur.  “I also heard your Uncle inquiring about you, Wilbur,” he smiled.

Johnny watched Wilbur strut off.  “‘S’pose the Old Man’s lookin’ for me,” he sighed.  “Guess I better go see what he wants.”  He took off, actually thinking he was going to get away.

“Oh, no, you don’t, little brother,” Scott said, grabbing his brother’s shoulder.  “You’re coming with me.”

Shit.  “Where?” Johnny asked.

“Over there,” Scott replied, pointing towards the small clearing just north of the church, and the wagon that was parked there.  He started walking.

Johnny was dragging his feet as he followed along beside.  “You got somethin’ to say, brother, just get it said.”

Scott’s lips turned up in a small grin, recognizing the phrase and the tone.  The smile soon disappeared.  “That was pretty cruel, Johnny.  What you and the others were doing back there to Wilbur.”  They had reached the clearing and he was already rummaging around in the back of the wagon.

“Meanin’ what?”  Johnny grabbed the back end of what appeared to be some kind of ramp.

“It’s for launching the skyrockets,” Scott explained, as if he could read his brother’s mind.  Picking up the other end of the wooden framework, he headed over to area where a narrow trench had been dug.  “And you know damned good and well what I’m talking about.”  He jockeyed the ten foot long contraption into place at the far edge of the trench; nodding a bit to his right as Johnny guided his end into place.  “That’s quite a speech impediment Wilbur’s got; the lisp.  I was there long enough to know you and the others were setting him up to say things that required the use of ‘s’ words, and then laughing at him behind his back.”  Using the toe of his boot, he gave the rocket launcher a slight nudge to line it up closer to the trench.

Johnny was on the defensive.  “Wilbur didn’t seem to care.”

“Wilbur has spoken that way since he was a very small child; he probably doesn’t even realize the lisp is as pronounced as it is.”  Scott studied his sibling’s countenance for a time.  “I thought better of you, brother.”

That stung, and it showed on Johnny’s face.  Although he’d deny it if asked, it really did matter to him what Scott thought.  Still…  He shrugged.  “So we teased him a little.  He’ll get over it.”

Scott was back at the wagon, pulling one of the crates toward the tailgate.  “You and the others were behaving like a mob, Johnny.  Six of you ganging up on one person.”  When he saw his brother was about to protest, he raised his hand.  “I was teased all the time when I was growing up, Johnny.”  He saw the look of surprise and continued.  “About being too tall for my age, about the circumstances regarding a father that didn’t seem to want me.  Even about how my mother died giving birth to me.  I ‘got over it’, so to speak, but that doesn’t make the memories any sweeter.”  He picked up the crate and carried it over to where the launch pad was.

Johnny was dragging the second crate from the wagon.  “How’d you get over it?” he asked, not able to think of any other question.

“The same way I imagine you did when you were growing up.  I became quite proficient at beating up my tormentors.”  He was retrieving the final box of fireworks.  His brow furrowed a bit as he carefully chose his next words.  “Are you going to tell me that you were never teased; and if you were that you just accepted it?  That those blue eyes didn’t get you some unwanted attention?”

Johnny had pulled a claw hammer from the wagon’s tool box and was using it to pry open the first crate.  “Hell, Scott.  I wasn’t the only kid on the border with a gringo daddy,” he said matter-of-factly.  His voice lowered.  “If somebody teased me, it was usually about what Mama did to make a livin’.  Or me bein’ a runt.”  That had changed when he found an equalizer; when he picked up his first gun.  He sucked in a lung full of air, realizing now what it was his brother was getting at.  “And, no, I didn’t like it.

“I won’t rag on Wilbur no more,” he declared.

Scott smiled, his eyes warming.  “That promise would carry a lot more weight if…” he repeated the word, “…if you also promise me won’t encourage the twins or the others.” 

Johnny shrugged.  “We won’t rag on him.”

Scott held out his hand for the hammer.  “I spoke to Señora Baldemero.  She sold me a dozen eggs; all pippers.  I’ve got them stowed in the wagon, packed in straw and cotton.”  He grunted a bit as he pulled the lid free.  “You can put them beneath Esmeralda when we get home, while I put up the team.”

One thing about Scott, Johnny grinned.  When he was done lecturin’, he was done lecturin’.  He stood back and watched as his brother inventoried the collection of fireworks.  Scott was right.  What the boxes held was a lot more impressive than the little strings of firecrackers the Baldemero’s sold at the store.  “Mayor Higg’s cannon, Scott.  You think it was really used in that War you was tellin’ me about?”

Scott stopped counting and looked across at his brother.  “That cannon,” he began, “is fresh out of some war surplus warehouse.”  It had become a common practice after the recent war, scrapping or dumping the excess armaments.  The City of Boston had a few relics decorating private gardens and the front lawns of public buildings.  “It’s also a naval gun, probably from a small frigate, and used more for close quarter sea battles than in the field.”

Johnny laughed.  “And Old Higgs is tryin’ to pass it off as somethin’ else?”

The blond had finished his inventory.  “Mayor Higgs is a pompous ass, Johnny.  I’ve listened to some of his stories.  To hear him tell it, he can trace his lineage back the Crusades and beyond.”  He grinned at his brother.  “Given the opportunity, he’ll probably produce a family tree someday that lists his Uncle Jesus.”

Johnny snickered.  “So that would make God his great grandpappy or something’?”

Scott laughed and cuffed his brother’s ear.  “It makes him feel important, Johnny.  He hasn’t accomplished one thing of any importance on his own, so he tends to live off the glory of his alleged ancestors.  If it wasn’t for his arrogance, it would be sad.”  He shrugged.  “The thing is, he isn’t fooling anyone.  Everyone recognizes he’s a buffoon, and if it wasn’t for his wife running the business, he wouldn’t have a dime.”

Johnny had picked up a rocket and was paying particular attention to the seemingly short fuse.  “Then how the Hell did he get elected mayor?”

Scott looked around to reassure himself they were still alone.  “Val looked into that.  It seems Clancy over at the Silver Dollar initiated a write-in campaign.  He paid a dollar and a free drink for everyone who voted for Higgs.”

The brunet stared hard at his brother, not sure if he should believe him.  “Why?’

“It was a joke,” Scott answered.  “The town council is stacked, so he doesn’t have any real power; not even as a tie-breaker vote.”  He was shaking his head.  “I have no idea why Clancy did it, other than he enjoyed the idea of pulling a prank.  He’s no fan of Higgs; not as a mayor, and certainly not as a businessman.”

Johnny wasn’t sure about that part about Clancy had any great liking for pranks.  He sure in hell never seemed to appreciate some of the stunts Johnny had pulled.  “So.  Now what?”

Scott was satisfied with the work he had done so far.  “We are going over to the food tables and get something to eat.  Then we’re going to do the cannon dedication, and we’ll finish off the evening with the fireworks.”

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

The cannon dedication was preceded by two recitations (including Mayor Higgs reading of the entire Declaration of Independence).  Johnny and Scott stood back from the crowd with Reese Simmons and the twins.  To kill time, Scott and Reese discussed — first — the planned fireworks show, and then, more quietly, the Mayor’s cannon.  Johnny listened attentively to his brother’s commentary; all the details about windage, velocity and trajectory.  It never ceased to amaze him just how much his brother knew; or the man’s insatiable curiosity.  If there was an answer to a question, Scott always seemed to find it.

Finally, the dedication ceremony was finished.  Scott smiled at the two young women, Carole and Heather, who had harmonized a beautiful a cappella rendition of “My Country ‘tis Of Thee”.  Sung right, the music was beautiful, and he had always found it a bit ironic that a melody that was recognized as the British National Anthem was almost always sung in celebration of America’s War of Independence.  He bowed slightly as the two girls passed him.

“Smooth, big brother,” Johnny teased, as he stepped back to allow the young ladies to pass.

Scott swatted the boy’s arm.  “There is the Cattleman’s Association Barbeque next month, brother.   I intend to have a full dance card.”  He tugged at Johnny’s arm, leading the way as Reese and the twins followed behind.  “You are going to help with the fireworks,” he announced.  “You and the twins.”

Johnny looked back at the twins, his eyes wide in disbelief.  He had figured, between Scott and the Old Man, his chance of getting close to where they were lighting the fireworks was between nil and not happenin’.  And he didn’t figure the twins had a chance in hell either.  As he turned back to his brother, he caught Reese’s eye.

Reese smacked Johnny on the rump; not hard, but enough to get his attention.  “We figured it was to our advantage to actually know where the three of you are, than to worry about where you’ve got off to.”

Damned if that don’t sound like a challenge, Johnny thought, rubbing his behind.

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

“I ain’t doin’ it!”

Teresa was determined.  There was no way Johnny was not going to help keep some of the younger children entertained until it was just a bit darker.  It’s not like it was her fault the adults had decided to wait another half hour or so before they began shooting off the fire works.  “If you and the twins don’t help me, I’m going to tell Murdoch.”

Johnny’s eyes flashed.  “I’m not square dancin’ with a bunch of little kids!  You figure out somethin’ else you and Molly and your friends can take care of without us.”  He cast a look at the twins.  “We ain’t doin’ any goddamned babysittin’.”

The girl frowned at the obscenity, her cheeks coloring when she her friends were within hearing distance.  “It’s not a square dance.  We’re going to do musical chairs.  And besides, I promised Mrs. McIntyre you and the twins would help.”  When it was apparent her brother wasn’t going to move, Teresa turned on her heel and stalked off towards where Murdoch and Jess Simmons were standing with Reverend McIntyre and Aggie Conway.

Tim reached out and tapped his friend’s arm.  “Maybe we should have just helped her out, Johnny.”

The brunet shook his head.  “Hell, no!”  He’d been in town damned near all day, and he’d had just about all he could take of this organized fun shit. “She’s got no right makin’ promises for me.  She never even asked.”  He turned to look at the dozen or so kids that were racing around the church yard; sticky-fingered, snot-nosed and screaming like a bunch of wild Indians.  One-on-one he liked kids just fine, but sure in hell not when they were runnin’ in packs.

“John.”  Murdoch reached out, his broad hand coming to rest firmly on his younger son’s shoulder.  “I want a word with you.”

Johnny visibly wilted.  He felt his father’s hand slip from his shoulder to the small of his back, and resigned himself to what was about to happen.  Might have well as been roped and hogtied. 

Murdoch escorted his son to the white picket fence that surrounded the parsonage.  He remained silent while he unwrapped a cigar; paring off the nub with his pocket knife and then lighting up.  “I want you to help Teresa, Johnny.”

The youth’s knuckles were raking across the pickets, making a dull ka-tump, ka-tump, sound.  “You askin’ me, or tellin’ me.”

The air around Murdoch’s head turned a hazy blue as he exhaled.  “I’m going to give you a choice, son.  You can help Teresa with the children for the next twenty minutes or so,” he could see the new moon beginning to rise and knew it would be dark soon, “and then help Scott with the fireworks; or you can join me with Jess and Reverend McIntyre until we’re ready to go home.”

Johnny was pouting.  “That ain’t much of a choice,” he muttered.

Murdoch was studying the burning end of his smoke.  “Well, it’s all you’ve got,” he said.  “Jess is talking to the twins.  They’ll be helping you, too.”  Smiling, he watched as his son trudged back towards the cluster of screaming children.  Civic duty, son, he mused.  All part of the Lancer contribution to the future of the valley.

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

Teresa was at her bossiest best.  The fact Johnny had been made to do what she had promised gave her a capricious sense of power.  Every once in awhile she’d catch the young man looking over to where his father was standing, as if he was looking for a chance to make a break; and when he turned back to the children, she’d find some other way to annoy him.  “Stone tag,” she announced, clapping her hands, and the children screamed in their excitement.

The damned game gave Johnny a whole new concept for the phrase stupid ass female.

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

A bemused smile graced Scott’s countenance as he watched his brother dance away from Teresa the final time; the smile growing as Johnny smacked the girl’s rear as he passed her.

Out of breath, Johnny skidded to a halt in front of his brother.  “I ain’t doin’ this again next year,” he proclaimed.

“Help with the fireworks?” Scott teased.

Johnny shot his brother his own version of the look; accompanied by a single upraised digit.  “Next year, I’ll take care of the fireworks!”  He fanned his right hip as if he were drawing his pistol.

Scott just laughed.  “I believe Murdoch’s precise words after your probation hearing were, ‘not one day, not one hour, not one minute before you reach your majority’.  Right before he locked your pistol in his desk drawer.”

The brunet’s chin dipped against his chest, his cheeks coloring.  “You ain’t the only Lancer that can pick a lock, brother.”

Ned and Tim had just dog-trotted up to the fire pit.  It was their first look at the boxes of fireworks.  “Holy shit!” they chorused.  Ned reached down into the first box and hefted a rocket.  He turned to look at his elder brother. 

Reese Simmons was on his knees beside the truss-like structure.  The wooden frame had been constructed so that it could be turned, and each of the three sides used as launchers of different angles of varying degrees.  There were nine slots, which allowed the rockets to be fired in series of three, six or nine.

Johnny watched as Scott and Reese placed the first series of rockets; three pretty good sized cylinders.  “So, when do we get to help?” he asked.

Scott grinned up at his sibling.  “We’ve rigged up some long spars as torches, little brother.  You and the twins get to do the honors.”  The next words were cautionary, his voice rising so the twins could hear him.  “The fuses are ten inches long, Johnny, but they burn fast.  These aren’t toys, and there will be some back flash, so you need to light the fuses, and back right off.  Understand?”

“Got it,” Johnny grinned.  He nodded at the twins, and headed for the place where the tightly bound torches were standing propped in a bucket of slow burning pine tar.  Tim provided the matches.

Reese counted down, three-two-one, and watched as the three boys touched their spars to the fuses in perfect union.  Johnny, Ned and Tim backed quickly away, their faces awash with the light from their torches, anticipation firing their eyes.  The sizzle and pop came with a puff of pale blue-gray smoke, red tails appearing at the bottom of each rocket as the coated fuses came alive and writhed like small snakes.  And then came the whoosh and the scream as the rockets took off skyward.

The explosions were simultaneous, the three rockets erupting against the dark horizon in a profusion of bright gold; like blossoming chrysanthemums unfolding under the sun.   Tendrils of white light burst off from the main blooms, dancing against the black sky like popcorn. 

Johnny grinned across at his brother, listening as the crowd that was gathered in the field behind them oohed and ahhed their appreciation.

They loaded a series of six rockets next; long, short, long, short, long, short; Scott providing a lesson in chemistry as they hurriedly arranged them.  “Set off the shorter ones first.  They’re packed with iron oxide, and when they explode they’ll be red.  The other ones — they’re filled with a form of phosphorus —  will burn pure white.”

The three teenagers did as they were told; dropping ass first on to the ground immediately after they ignited the rockets.  Just as Scott promised, the fireworks splashed against the sky.

Reese and Scott rotated the wooden framework; providing a higher angle with longer slots.  As a well-oiled team, they reloaded the compartments; this time nine rockets.

Johnny moved in to help.  “How come you flipped it?”

“Trajectory,” Scott answered.  “The steeper the angle the higher the rocket will go.”  He quickly inventoried the racks.  “This one’s going to be a little trickier when we light up.”

Johnny headed back to the fire for more spars; bringing three more back and handing two off to his brother, one to Reese.  Scott gestured with his hand the first series of three; waited a bit, then gave the nod for the next three, and the next.

The noise was greater this time as the rockets shot into the atmosphere; streamers of sparks trailing across the sky before the cylinders began to explode.  This time their was shouting from the crowd, and whistles of appreciation.

All was going well until the three youngsters decided a sword fight with their lit torches was in order.  Ignoring the shouts from their elder brothers, they continued the horseplay. It didn’t take them long to realize they could cut long colorful trails through the dark sky, as if they were writing with fire.  They made series of widening circles, working in concert.

Scott and Reese were flipping the launcher yet another time, and loading up with a series of even longer rockets.  Screamers, Scott called them.  Lots of noise in addition to the blooms of light; series of color bursts within color bursts, and then long, trailing streams of sparks that poured from the sky like diamonds across black velvet.

Reese was the first one to see one of the torches suddenly spiral through the air to land in the near empty crate.  He called out to Scott and immediately belly-flopped onto the ground, covering his head with his hands.  The wooden box exploded; two smaller rockets and a trio of pinwheels igniting and skimming across the ground.  Thin tendrils of fire followed in their wake; fingers of flame cutting across the landscape.

Johnny and the twins raced across the grassy flats; stomping out the fire as they ran.  It was a game to them, and they hop-scotched across field with no regard for the fact they were wearing their Sunday clothes.  Then, their job done, they trooped back towards their brothers.

Big mistake. All three youths found themselves suddenly sitting on their butts on the hard ground.  Reese and Scott stood before them issuing orders like huntsmen bringing their hounds to heel.  “Sit!”  Silence.  “Stay!!”  When Johnny started to protest, Scott silenced him with a single wave of his hand.  “We’ll discuss this later.” 

Tim watched as his brother and Scott Lancer went back to their business.  “Well, this is for shit,” he muttered.  “It’s not like you let go of that torch on purpose.”  Still, he punched his brother’s arm.

Johnny was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped around his knees.  His fingers were dancing against his forearms and he was deep in thought.  And bored.  “Let’s get out of here,” he whispered.

Ned lifted his head slightly.  “You think we can do it?”

The brunet chuckled.  “They’re too busy takin’ care of all the fuse lighting,” he murmured.  “We can go back to town.  It’s dark enough no one will see us if we’re careful.”  He scratched his nose. “I know where old Sam Farley keeps a stash of mash liquor in the livery.”

“No shit,” Tim whispered.  “Well, what the hell are we waiting for?”

“Shhh,” Johnny cautioned.  He snake crawled across the grass, heading straight for the last box of fireworks. Grabbing three of the smaller rockets, he tucked them into his shirt.

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

They skirted the crowd, making their way into the main part of town without being seen; like young bucks hot on the trail of first coup.  Their first stop was the livery stable, where they found not one, but two unopened bottles of Kentucky mash.

It had been some time since any of the youths had drunk anything stronger than beer; what with their fathers not being that inclined to let them loose in town very often.  Ned took a pull on the bottle and passed it off to Johnny, who was propped up against a bale of hay.  “So, what you figure on doin’ with those fire crackers, Johnny?”

Outside of town, they could still hear the sound of the fireworks, and the enthusiastic applause and shouting.  Johnny listened a bit, and then answered the question.  “Rockets,” he corrected.  He hadn’t really thought about what he was going to do with them; it was just the idea he could swipe them from right under Scott’s nose and take off with them.

Tim, who was really swilling the whisky, suddenly had an epiphany.  “You figure that cannon Mayor Higgs planted in the square is real; I mean could actually spit out those cannon balls?”

Johnny perked right up.  “Scott says its real.”  He took a drink and belched.  “It just ain’t what Higgs said it is.”

“He said it was a cannon,” Ned snorted.  “Looks like a cannon.”

The brunet nodded.  “Oh, it’s a cannon.  But it ain’t from the Revolutionary War like he said it was.  Scott said it was a naval cannon; from a ship.”  His brow furrowed.  “A frigate.”  He was going to have to remember to ask Scott what the Hell a frigate was.

Tim tossed a handful of straw bedding at his friend.  “You believe everythin’ Scott tells you?” he slurred.  Sometimes, it was really a pain in the ass when Johnny brought up his older brother and how smart he was.

“Why not?”  He picked up his own handful of bedding, making sure it contained some remnants of dried horse apples.  “He went to Harvard you know.”

“Big fuckin’ deal,” Tim laughed.

“Yeah.”  Johnny was getting pissed.  “Well, he knows about that cannon out there, and  how it works.  Told me all about windage, velocity and trajectory.”

Tim took another pull on the bottle.  “Yeah, he’d know about windage all right,” he snickered.

Ned took a swipe at his brother’s head with his hat.  “Don’t pay any attention to him, Johnny.  He heard Pa and Reese talkin’ about how Scott might be willin’ to get us ready for that equivalency test.”  When he saw the look of confusion on his friend’s face, he continued.  “The school thing.”

Johnny had forgotten about ‘the school thing’.  He immediately shook the thought out of his mind. 

“Tell us some more about the cannon,” Ned prompted.

“War surplus,” Johnny answered.  “Scott says…” he hesitated, waiting to see if Tim would jump in and then plowed on.  “It can be fired.  You just have to figure the right load, the right trajectory…where it’s goin’ to go…and the windage.”

“Prove it,” Tim challenged. “Hell, there’s cannon balls out there.  And you got those rockets.  I heard Scott tellin’ Reese all about the Chinese and the gunpowder.”  He took in a short breath.  “Sorry for raggin’ on you about Scott, Johnny.”  He lifted the now half empty bottle of whiskey.  They’d already finished the first one.  “This stuff makes me stupid sometimes.”

Johnny grinned.  He pulled the bottle from Tim’s hands and took a swig.  “Just sometimes?”  He was chewing on his lower lip.  “I think we should shoot off the cannon.”

Ned shook his head.  “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Johnny.  Not after the way we were horsin’ around out in that field.  I mean why?”

The brunet scratched his ear, twisting the curl that tickled the skin just at the lobe.  He took another sip of whiskey.  “Because it’s there,” he declared. 

Tim struggled to get to his feet; swaying a bit.  “Reason enough for me, compadre.”

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

A series of pinwheels were afire, mounted to poles of varying heights.  The two-by-four pine studs supported the intricate framework for an array of special explosive packets arranged in the shape and colors of a large American flag; complete with thirty-seven stars.  The flag display would be the last of the fireworks to be ignited.

Scott was placing the remaining, larger rockets into the slots of the launcher; preparing for what was to be the grand finale.  Like Reese, he was sweating profusely.  “Think we should allow the devil’s minions to help us set off the last of these rockets?”

Reese paused long enough to wipe the sweat on his forehead away with the back of his hand.  “Well, they have been quiet.”

The blond laughed.  “Miracles of miracles.”  Turning slightly, he called out into the darkness to his brother.  “Johnny…”  He closed his eyes, a soft whisper coming as he swore.  “Damn it!”

Reese was concentrating on relighting his spar.  “What?”

“They’re gone.”

The elder Simmons son shook his head. “Maybe they went back to the churchyard.”

Scott’s laughter was sardonic, but he decided not to burst his friend’s bubble.  “Let’s get this done,” he said, nodding towards the last of the fireworks, “so we can go find them and kill them.”

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

Johnny flipped the empty whiskey bottle over his shoulder; wincing as he heard it smash against the barn door.  The noise seemed to penetrate the fuzz, and he was beginning to think that maybe this wasn’t one of his better ideas. And then Tim said the magic words: “C’mon, Madrid.  You ain’t thinkin’ of changin’ your mind?”  He began making chicken sounds.

“Hell, no,” Johnny snapped.

Together, the three youths staggered into the street and headed for the town square.  “Man, it’s dark,” Tim whispered.  With all the shops and the saloons closed, the main street was like a ghost town.

“Light a match,” Ned instructed.  He was whispering, too.

Johnny reached out, missing Tim’s arm when he grabbed at him.  “Go get that lantern that’s hangin’ in front of Widow Hargiss’ store.”

Tim shook his head from side to side, vigorously.  “You crazy?  She catches me, she’ll whack the shit out of me with her broom.”

Stumbling, Johnny right himself.  “She ain’t here, jackass!  She’s watchin’ the fireworks along with everyone else!” 

The twins giggled.  Tim sprinted over to the Widow’s store and snatched the lantern.  He managed to get it lit before he staggered back to the square.  Feeling helpful, he held it up above the cannon.

Johnny’s eyes widened.  Tim was swaying back and forth, and as he did the light from the lantern swung with him.  It not only made it difficult to focus, it was making Johnny Lancer seasick.  Sucking up, he steadied himself.   “Trajectory,” he muttered.

“C’mon, Johnny. Get serious.”  Ned grabbed his brother’s arm; holding it reasonably steady.

No problema,” Johnny rubbed his eyes, refocusing.  He moved behind the gun, squatting down to sight along the barrel, and promptly fell on his ass.  But he’d had a good enough look to know that if they fired the cannon from its present position, it would blow a hole right through the side of the church.

Dusting off his britches, Johnny stood up.  “Trajectory,” he said again.  He took another look at the cannon, and in the dim light saw what he remembered from that very afternoon: the crank that made it possible to adjust the elevation.  He kicked at it with the toe of his boot; testing to see if it had any give.  Surprisingly, it did.  Bending forward, he gave the crank a couple spins.

Ned had been busy, too.  He had taken a cannon ball from the once perfect pyramid of shot — the capstone — and was juggling it in his hand.  “Hey, Johnny.”  He pointed at the cannon.  “This thing’s got a fuse, just like them fireworks.”  Using his forefinger, he scraped away what appeared to be a fresh coat of black paint to reveal a length of rope-like fabric.

Johnny wasn’t about to admit he didn’t really know much about how this piece of weaponry worked, so he decided to just fake it.  But he did know about bravado.  Digging inside his shirt, he pulled out the compact rockets.  Sweat-soaked, they were stuck together.  He shoved them into the barrel of the cannon.  Ned followed suit with the cannon ball.

Tim produced a match.  Johnny took it and scratched it against the heel of his boot.  Then he changed his mind and blew it out.

“Now what?”  Tim murmured.

“We need to wait.  Until Scott and Reese shoot off the next round of fireworks.” Johnny leaned against the cannon; seemingly as relaxed as a sleepy cat.

In the distance, almost as if on cue, the next trio of skyrockets exploded into the night sky.  Johnny struck a second match.  He touched it to the fuse.


“Shit.”  Ned watched the little flicker of flame sputter out.  Beyond them, the next batch of skyrockets boomed into the night-time quiet.

Tim unscrewed the base of the kerosene lantern loose from the brass frame.  He poured some of the fuel on the fuse; a bit more inside the raised barrel.  And then he dropped a match into the opening.

There was a sudden whoosh as the flame disappeared into the cannon’s short barrel, devouring the trapped air.  At the same time, the fuse sparked alive, igniting the store of black gunpowder that had been caked at the base of the gun. 

A muffled whoof sounded then; just as the last of the skyrockets Scott and Reese ignited soared across the horizon.  The faint explosion from within the cannon wasn’t much louder than a baby’s fart; and about as powerful.  But it was enough to push the cannon ball up the barrel, where it tipped over the rim and plopped impotently onto the ground.

“Fuck!”  This from a trio of voices.  The three boys moved closer to the opening at the end of the barrel.

And then the skyrockets roared to life.  The fireworks screamed out of the cannon trailing a cloud of black smoke, the whistling momentarily intensified and then fading as a shower of hot sparks peppered the three boys, who began furiously swatting at their shirt fronts.  There faces were black with soot.  Staring at the smoke trails marking the path of the incendiaries, the youths watched in shocked horror as the projectiles sailed directly towards the belfry of the church.

Johnny actually prayed.  Not inside the tower; please, not inside the bell tower.

God was not listening.  The rockets slammed into the steeple and immediately exploded.  Johnny watched in dismay as the roof of the belfry heaved upwards and sideways; as if lifted away by a giant hand.  The bell was clanging like a fire alarm; and the upper portion of the spire was now teetering on the leeward side of the steeply banked roof.  Johnny watched as the newly formed cupola began a slow slide, picking up speed as it plunged earthward.  The steeple shattered on impact; wood and shingles flying in four directions, the tower’s roof collapsing and the dust rising.  Small flickers of blue, orange tinged flame teases at the edges of the shingles, smoke beginning to rise. 

“Ho-ly shit,” Ned muttered.

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

Murdoch Lancer stood at the base of the small rise, a look of confusion on his face.  The last of the fireworks had been ignited, the final explosions dying.  And yet, from behind him… He turned and stared back across the crowd at the source of sound; alarmed at the constant ringing of the bell, even more concerned when the clanging stopped; followed by a muffled, metallic clunk. 

From out of nowhere, Val Crawford appeared, shouting orders.  The next thing Murdock knew, the lawman had ignited a compact pocket lantern.  Val dropped the mirrored reflector into place, and just as quickly adjusted the forward magnifying lens.  Holding the light up, he aimed the concentrated beam at the church.

Out of breath from his sprint down the small hillside, Scott skidded to a halt to his father’s right.  He watched as Val tilted the light upwards, sucking in a deep breath as he observed the damage.  The church steeple was gone.

Mayor Higgs came waddling through the crowd.  He was shaking his finger, blustering his way forward until he arrived right in front of Scott Lancer.  “How did this happen!?” he demanded.  “How could you boys be so careless…?”

Scott reached out, his right hand closing around the Mayor’s sweaty hand, effectively folding the offending finger back against the Mayor’s palm.  “Are you a complete ass, Higgs?” he hissed.  “In case you failed to notice,” he gestured behind him, “Reese Simmons and I were firing those rockets in a north-westerly direction, away from the town!”

Val was grinning, his teeth showing in a wide smile.  He loved it when Boston got riled.  “We need to take a look,” he declared.  “You,” he pointed to Scott, “you,” to Reese (who had just joined them), “and you, Murdoch.”

“Now see here!” Higgs sputtered indignantly.  “I’m the mayor of this town…”

“And I’m the sheriff,” Val ground out.  “Now get the hell out of my way and let me do my job.”

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

Johnny and the Simmons’ were debating their current situation, which was grim.  There weren’t too many options open to them; something that hadn’t quite hit home yet.  This, they did know.  They needed to get out of town.  Now.

“How much money you got?” Ned hissed in Johnny’s ear.

Instinctively, the brunet brushed the spit away.  “About five bucks.  Why?”

Ned had turned out his pockets, finding only some loose change and a single silver dollar.  Tim’s search of his own pants turned up nothing but lint.  Ned shook his head.  “We need fifteen bucks to rent horses from Farley,” he groused.

Johnny laughed.  “Farley gets a whiff of us and figures out we’re the ones that made off with his hooch, he won’t rent us a mule!”

Tim jarred to a complete halt.  “You’re gonna steal a horse,” he accused.

Johnny poked his head around the corner of the Silver Dollar.  “Three horses,” he said, holding up the appropriate amount of digits.  “‘Less the two of you figure on walkin’ back to your place, or ridin’ home with your Daddy and Reese.”

Ned stared across at his brother.  “They hang you for stealin’ horses, Johnny.”

The brunet had taken off his hat.  “Only if they catch you.”  He turned to face his friends.  “And we ain’t gonna steal ‘em.  We’re just gonna borrow a couple of horses,” he said.  “We’re not takin’ any tack.  We’ll beat it like all holy hell for home; then turn the horses loose.  They’ll come back to the barn, and we’ll be home before everyone else.”

Ned mulled over the plan.  Considering it was one of Johnny’s, it was actually pretty good.

Tim, however, was trying to look at the big picture.  “And how’ll we explain we got home before everybody else?”

Johnny had to think about that a minute.  “We’ll just tell ‘em we got bored and rode home with someone who left early.”

Well, it did sound reasonable; at least to the twins.  “You sure the horses will come back to Farley’s?”

Johnny was signaling the boys to follow him.  “Where do your horses go when you lose ‘em and they get away?”

“Back to the barn,” the twins answered in unison.  “Sometimes.”

Disgusted with their reluctance, Johnny turned to face his buddies.  “Walk,” he raised his thumb, “take the horses,” he raised his forefinger.  “Stay here and get caught.”  The middle digit, the you’re screwed finger, rose almost of its own accord.


Johnny grinned up at his companions.  Then, in a stroke of pure genius, he took off his flat-heeled dress boots.  Keeping a low profile, his body a slim silhouette against the growing flames, he gingerly stuffed one boot beneath a smoldering piece of wood; the other a few feet away.  He paused just long enough to adjust the boots.  They looked very much like they were attached to legs that were buried beneath the debris.

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

Jess Simmons had collected a variety of different lanterns from several of the other ranchers who had driven their work wagons into the celebration. He had picked the kerosene lamps he knew would provide the most light; carefully making sure the glass was soot free, and the bases full of fuel.  He passed them out, and then joined the search party.

Val and Murdoch were in the lead; Scott walking just to his father’s right.  The lawman spoke, keeping his words private.  “Don’t suppose you might know where Johnny is?” he asked.

Murdoch’s jaws tensed.  He kept walking.  “Scott?”

The blond had expected the question but wasn’t quite prepared to answer.  Still, he knew better than to remain quiet.   He cast a sidewise look at Reese Simmons, grimacing when his friend shook his head. “Not where he was supposed to be, sir,” he muttered.

They rounded the corner at the front of the church four abreast.  Totally taken aback by what they were seeing, the men stopped dead in their tracks.  Before them lay the smoking remains of the church’s bell tower, clapboard siding and cedar shake shingles littering the grassy yard.

Val raised his high-beam lantern higher, the sharp intake of air as he inhaled cutting into the unnatural quiet.  The first thing he saw was the soles of a pair of flat-heeled walking boots sticking from beneath the litter.

Together, they approached the pile of wood, Murdoch dropping down to one knee.  Ignoring the heat from the flames, he reached out.  “Those are Johnny’s boots,” he murmured.

A crowd had begun to gather.  Scott pulled his gloves from his back pocket and joined his father in pulling at the smoldering two-by-fours.  Wordlessly, Val handed his lantern off to Jess Simmons; pausing only long enough to call out to Reese.  “Get a bucket line going,” he ordered.

Teresa had arrived on the scene, her hands going to her mouth as she stifled a scream.  Then, collecting herself, she called out to Scott.  “I’ll get Sam!” she cried.  She immediately turned on her heel, silently nodding a thank you to Jess Simmons when the man handed her a second, wire handled lantern.

She broke through the crowd, intent on her mission and choking back tears.  Impulsively, she decided to take a short cut.

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

“How come you did that thing with your boots?”  Ned Simmons tapped Johnny on the shoulder.

Johnny snickered.  “If they’re lookin’ under all that wood for us, they ain’t lookin’ here in the streets!”  He paused to look around the corner.  Someone was coming in their direction.  He couldn’t tell who it was; the lantern the person was carrying was at their side at arms length, casting a dim beam.  It was, he figured — taking a closer look — a woman; he could tell by the skirt.  She wasn’t running, but she was moving at a pretty good clip.

Withdrawing into the shadows, Johnny held his finger up to his lips.  “Shhhh.”  He was whispering now.  “Someone’s comin’.  Get back against the wall and stay still.”

Teresa marched down the street, her mind on nothing but her destination.  She wasn’t completely comfortable walking along the dark alleyway, but it was the fastest way to get to Sam’s place.  Poor Sam, she mused.  The doctor had been called away from the 4th of July fireworks to attend to a small boy who had eaten one blueberry pie too many in the pie eating contest, and he hadn’t come back to the celebration.

She rounded the corner just as Johnny moved forward to take another look at the street.  The collision was unavoidable. 

“Johnny!” she shrieked.  Relief flooded her face and she was actually jumping up and down.  “Oh, Johnny!!”  Forgetting about the lantern she was holding in her hand, she grabbed him in an enthusiastic, two-armed hug.  The lantern — its glass globe poker hot — collided with Johnny’s right buttock.

“Jesus Fucking H. Christ, T’resa!  Watch it with that thing!”  Johnny twisted away from her grasp; swatting the lantern aside and then fanning his butt.  “And shut the hell up!”

If looks could have killed, Teresa O’Brian would have been falling backwards into an appropriately sized pine box, a flaming fissure would have opened up beneath her, and the girl and her coffin would already be on their way to hell.  But, no, there she was; her mouth going a hundred miles an hour, and at full bore.

“We thought you were dead!” she squealed.  And then she began screaming, at the top of her lungs.   “Murdoch!  Scott!  Murdoch!  Scott!”

The alleyway erupted into an explosion of sound, the heavy pounding of feet at a full run.  Johnny looked back towards his two friends, jerking his head in the opposite direction as he tried to untangle himself from the young woman’s grasp.  It was a losing battle.

“I’ve found him!” Teresa screamed.  She lifted the lantern, displaying her prize.

Johnny and the Simmons’ twins were standing with their backs pinned against the back wall of Baldemero’s store.  They were now completely bathed in the white light of not one, but four lanterns: Teresa’s, Murdoch’s, Scott’s, and Val’s.

The light from Val’s lantern was the most intense.

Scott closed his eyes, hoping when he opened them what he had just seen would be gone; non-existent.  The ploy didn’t work.  When his pale eyes opened, the three boys were still there.  Johnny was bootless, his once white socks the color of red clay.  It got worse as Scott’s eyes drifted up his brother’s slim frame.  The boy’s dress pants were filthy, and the white embroidered shirt Maria had just recently made for him was pock-marked with pin-holed and larger sized scorch marks.  And Johnny’s face…

Johnny’s face was smudged almost black, which only served, even in this muted light, to intensify his blue eyes.  The boy was actually smiling.

But not for long.  Scott could feel the earth beneath his feet trembling.  He knew without looking that his father had just taken several steps in his brother’s direction.  “Do something, Val,” he murmured; “before you have to arrest Murdoch for murder most foul.”

Val was shaking his head.  “Whatever he does, it won’t be near foul enough,” he muttered.  He turned slightly, gesturing to Jess Simmons.  “You want ‘em, or do you just want me to haul ‘em off to jail until I figure out the charges and tally up the damages?”

Jess Simmons eyed his two boys.  “They’ll be going home with me,” he announced through clenched teeth.

Val nodded.  “Murdoch?”

Murdoch’s right hand was firmly attached to the nape of his younger son’s neck.  “I’m taking him home,” he growled.  He pulled the youth to him.  “Scott.  Teresa.”  Shouldering his way through the crowd, the Lancer patriarch led the way towards the place where their buggy and the wagon were still parked on the far side of the church.

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

It took considerable time and even more finesse for Scott to convince his father that Johnny should ride back to Lancer in the wagon and not the surrey.  Not that Johnny was all that happy about the arrangement.  “You gonna talk to me, or are you just gonna sit there like some fuckin’ rock?”

Scott clucked to the team, his nimble fingers manipulating the lines until the leathers rose and fell in one smooth smack that urged the team forward at a brisker pace.  “Where to start,” he mused.  “Perhaps at the point where you and the twins were sword fighting with the spars you were supposed to be using to light the fireworks.”  He raised a gloved hand.  “No.  Maybe I should begin with the part where one of you managed to let go of your make-believe sword, only to have it land in the box with the pinwheels.”  He smacked his forehead with his palm.  “Wait.  It should probably be when said pinwheels set the grass on fire; or when,” he turned to face his brother, “Reese and I told the three of you,” his voice was rising, “to sit down and stay put!”

Johnny was sorry now that he’d even said anything about his brother’s silence.  “We’re not some damned dogs, you know,” he griped.

Scott was now staring straight ahead.  “No,” he agreed.  “Dogs mind better.”  He turned to face his brother fully.  “That was a nice touch with your boots,” he seethed.  “You had Murdoch about this far,” he measured with his thumb and forefinger, “from a major heart attack.”  He said nothing about how his own gut had clenched to the point he thought he was going to lose his supper.

“It was a diversion,” Johnny sulked.  A shiver coursed through his lean frame as they passed beneath the arch.  Right about now, Val’s jail was looking pretty good.

“A diversion,” Scott echoed.  His tone was caustic.

Johnny didn’t miss the sarcasm.  “Yeah.  One of them tin soldier moves; so the twins and I could get out of town before anybody got wise to what happened.”  His eyes narrowed, and he was frowning.  “Would’ a worked, too, if Teresa had kept her fuckin’ nose out of it.”

Scott smacked his brother’s left knee, hard; so hard the sharp sound startled the horses, and the animals bolted forward.  He reined them in.  He had no doubt his brother would have gotten out of town; just as he had no doubt that Murdoch would have found him and hauled him back.  “So now it’s all Teresa’s fault,” he sighed.  “Explain it to me.  She blew up the bell tower how?”  He maneuvered the team to a perfect stop in front of the barn door.

Johnny was out of the wagon in less than a heartbeat.  He started around the tailgate, reconsidering when he saw his father leading the surrey in their direction.  Fuck!

Murdoch was, Scott thought as he dropped down from the driver’s seat, remarkably calm.  Too calm.  He moved out to meet him.  “We’ll take care of the horses, sir,” he offered.  Surprisingly, his father simply nodded, and then turned and headed back for the house.

“Now what?”  Johnny was staring hard at his father’s back.

“I will take care of the horses,” Scott answered.  “And you will attend to the little issue with Esmeralda and the eggs.”

Truth be told, so much had happened, Johnny had forgotten all about the faux chicken eggs he had tucked under Teresa’s laying hen.  Just like he had forgotten how all this shit had started anyway.  Teresa tattlin’ on him for takin’ the chocolate cake, her big mouth goin’ to the twins about him havin’ to do squaw’s work, the bossiness at the church social.

The way she had screamed her head off, callin’ Murdoch and Scott after the little accident with the cannon…

“Yeah,” he murmured.  “Gotta fix those eggs.”  He tossed off a lopsided smile in his brother’s direction.  “Where’d you say they were?” he asked.   

Scott reached over the side of the wagon, carefully lifting a small gunny sack up from beneath the seat.  “You meet me in the barn when you are done,” he ordered.  “He’ll expect us to come into the house together, and we are not going to disappoint him.”

Johnny had the gunny sack cradled against his belly.  “He’s been pretty quiet,” he observed.

The blond had already begun to unharness the team.  “Trust me, brother,” he murmured; “I’m sure that will change once we are standing before the throne.”

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

Johnny headed for the hen house.  He paused long enough at the door to light the small lantern Teresa kept on hand for the early winter mornings when the sun was slow to rise.  He struck a match, adjusting the wick; unable to hide his surprise when the rooster responded to the light and coughed out a feeble crow.

The hens simply shifted in their boxes.  Esmeralda was seemingly asleep, her head tucked under one wing.  Johnny watched as she squirmed a bit, raised up slightly, and then hootchi-cooched her plump bottom to a more comfortable position atop her eggs.  Her eggs, he smiled, thinking about how surprised the old bitch was going to be when things started happening.

Knowing damned good and well he was not going to put the eggs Scott had purchased beneath Esmeralda, Johnny checked out the bevy of hens.  No way.  Teresa had been a bitch, and — one way or the other — she was going to pay.  Grinning, he made his decision.

On the lowest tier of boxes, he found her; a scraggly old hen that was often picked on and pecked by the other biddies.  She didn’t lay many eggs anymore, and more than once Johnny had heard Maria say the hen was destined for the stew pot; and even Teresa had agreed.  Carefully, Johnny hunkered down.  One by one, he shoved the fertilized eggs beneath the now curious hen; smiling as she cocked her head in response to the pipping sounds that were coming from within the shells.

He stood up, rolling up the burlap bag and disposing of it in the corner.  “‘Night, ladies,” he said, blowing out the lantern and backing out the door.

He caught up with Scott just as his brother finished stabling the buggy horse.  “Nice job, brother,” he said; his arms folded as he rested against the top most rail of the animal’s stall.

“And your chore?” Scott asked, scooping a measure of grain into the feed trough.  “You’ve taken care of the eggs?”

Johnny smiled up at his sibling.  “Yep,” he answered, “Took care of ‘em just fine.”

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

Murdoch was watching from the front door as his sons traipsed in from the barn.  How, he thought, could something that had been so well planned go so wrong? Both he and Scott had been so careful about the fireworks; about keeping them hidden, allowing Johnny to find out about them when he could be supervised, before he could think up any mischief.  He took a long sip of the Glenlivet.  Johnny, he mused, answering his own question.  Johnny could — and very often did — create total mayhem out of complete peace; and he could do it in his sleep.

Of course, Scott’s obvious lack of diligent supervision hadn’t help.

Johnny had dropped back some, and Scott had to reach back to bring him up even.  Together, the two brothers stepped through the door.  Scott nodded towards the Great Room, assuming that’s where the dance was going to be played out.  Murdoch shook his head.  He turned to face his younger.  “You,” he said, gesturing with his glass.  “Bed.”

Both Lancer sons stood dumbfounded before Murdoch, who wasn’t even yelling.  No, the Old Man wasn’t even breathing hard.  He was however; beginning to show signs that he was losing patience.  He spoke again to his youngest; more single word commands, his manner terse.  “Upstairs.  Bed.  NOW!!”

Shit, Johnny fumed.  Just like Scott; talkin’ to me like I’m some fuckin’ dog.  Well, two can play that game.  Not thinking of what the consequences might be, he spoke right up, his mouth kicking into gear before his brain.  “Not.  Tired.”

In one swift move, Murdoch handed his drink glass to his elder son and then, using the same hand, popped his younger one on the behind.  Whump!!

Johnny decided he was tired after all.  He was up the stairs like a shot.

Scott took a long drink from his father’s glass, and then handed it back.  “I’ll be turning in now, too, sir.”

Murdoch stared into his near empty glass.  “You will not,” he growled.  He executed an abrupt about face and headed down the stairs into the Great Room; and headed immediately for his desk.

Scott picked up a glass and the decanter of Glenlivet as he passed the drink table.  He refilled his father’s tumbler before filling his own.

“Sit.”  Murdoch took his place behind the desk.

The blond took a healthy swig, debating if it would be wise to respond with his usual ‘I prefer to stand.’  He sat.

“I think tomorrow is as good a time as any,” Murdoch began.

“For what, sir?” Scott asked.  The possible answers to his question were myriad; a one-way train ticket back to Boston, weeks — months — of stringing wire, long days of mucking out stalls and the haciendamany out door privies.  The rest of his life staring at the south end of cows moving north.  His father’s answer was far worse than any of the options he had anticipated.

“To begin Johnny’s schooling,” Murdoch answered bluntly.  Before Scott had a chance to respond, he continued on.  “I’ve spoken to Jess Simmons.  We’ve agreed that you would volunteer to prepare all three boys for an equivalency exam, to ascertain just where they are academically and socially.”

About third grade, Scott mused, at least on the social level.  He lounged back in the chair, the now empty glass dangling from the slender fingers of his right hand.  “Sir, do you really think it would be wise for me to work with all three boys at the same time?”

Murdoch hid the smile behind the brim of his glass.  “I’ve spoken with both Mrs. McIntyre and the Reverend.  They agree the boys need to learn how to interact properly,” he stressed the word, “when they are in the company of others, especially when the three of them are together.  That means learning proper manners, the proper way to conduct themselves in a group…”  He shrugged.  “All those things I’m sure you learned and excelled at when you were growing up, and in your time at Harvard.”

The idea of supervising three teen-aged terrors as a group was enough to give Scott an instant, severe headache.  “Do I sense this is somehow also a punishment for allowing Johnny to get into trouble tonight?” he asked.

This time, Murdoch didn’t bother to hide the smile.  “Consider it an opportunity to hone your supervisory skills,” he intoned.

“Or grow eyes in the back of my head,” Scott muttered.  “And we are going to accomplish this how?”

“I’ll have Cipriano put Mateo and Paco on cleaning up the old guard house first thing in the morning,” Murdoch answered, stifling a yawn.  “I’d thought about my study, or here in the Great Room, but there are just too many distractions.”

Scott laughed.  “And too many doors.”  He immediately sobered.  “And if they get out of line?” he asked.

The question required a bit of thought before Murdoch could answer it.  “I’ll leave that to your discretion, son; within reason.  If Johnny gets too far out of hand, then I’ll deal with it.”

Laughter again from the blond.  “Aha,” he said.  “The old ‘just wait until your father gets home’ ploy.”  Of course, in his case, it had always been ‘until your grandfather gets home’; usually with very dire consequences.

“I’m quite serious about this, Scott.  I know Johnny is going to fight you — us — on this, but better some turmoil now than a major confrontation if he ends up having to go to school in town.”

Scott nodded.  “Are you going to speak to him tonight?” he asked.  In the background, the Grandfather clock inched towards the midnight mark; preparing to strike.

Murdoch pushed back his chair and stood up; his hand going to the tender spot just above his right hip.  “No,” he grimaced.  “If I to speak to him tonight, I may very well end up wringing his neck.”  His eyes caught the sudden grin on his elder son’s face.  “Restrain yourself, son,” he scolded.  “I am not about to kill your brother just so you won’t have to work with him.”

Scott returned the smile.  “Damn,” he breathed, doing a good job of sounding disappointed.  “Sir,” he gestured towards the stairs.

Murdoch nodded.  He was tired; more tired than he cared to admit.  There was nothing more exhausting than dealing with his sons when they were feeling fractious; a personality quirk they had both displayed right from the beginning.  “Good night, son,” he said, gently patting the younger man’s shoulder as he passed him by and headed for the staircase.  The affection in his tone far surpassed the fatigue.

“Goodnight, sir.”

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

Johnny made a point of being early to the breakfast table.  Not that it did him any good.  The estanciagrapevine had been operating in a major communications mode, the old telewoman far outdoing the speed of the local telegraph.  Maria and her family had been at the 4th of July celebration, as had Cipriano and his family and they knew everything.  Well, not everything, Johnny mused.  The fact he was still alive and his ass end wasn’t on fire was pretty solid testimony to the fact Mamácita didn’t know about his socks, his white shirt and his pants.

And then Teresa waltzed into the room.  She was carrying a laundry basket and something rolled up in a tube beneath her arm.  “Maria,” she began, holding out the basket.  “Johnny’s dirty clothes,” she said.  It was, after all, wash day.  She sucked in her bottom lip.  “I don’t know if you’re going to able to do anything about his shirt.”

Maria’s eyes narrowed as she picked up the shirt and shook it out.  It was filthy; pock-marked with burn holes of various sizes and shapes; and no longer fit to be worn. “Juanito!”   A litany of complaints began in rapid fire Spanish.

Scott had just taken his seat.  His understanding of Maria’s Spanish had improved a great deal over the past few months, and he was able to pick out several words he had heard many times before, all of them directed at his younger and obviously guilty younger brother.  Hoping to halt the tirade, he lifted his empty coffee cup up.  “Maria,” he began softly, “if I could please have some coffee?”

The polite request was enough to temper the woman’s anger.  She threw the damaged shirt back into the basket and snatched it off the table.  Murdoch arrived at the table just in time to see the woman’s stiff-backed retreat.  “I take it Maria has seen Johnny’s shirt,” he said, taking his place at the head of the table.

Teresa sat down.  “It is laundry day, Murdoch,” she said, her tone defensive.  “And Johnny didn’t bring his basket down.”  She smirked at her brother.  “He never does.”

It was an old argument, one that was becoming a major source of annoyance.  “Another thing to add to your list of responsibilities that need to be learned, Scott.”

Puzzled, Johnny shot a look at his elder brother.  Scott rarely was called to task by his father about forgotten chores.  He shrugged.  Well, if Scott was being hollered at, it meant he wasn’t.  A good thing. 

Teresa was shoveling food on her plate as if she were planning a long day of manual labor.  “Today’s the day,” she piped up.

“And what day is that?” Murdoch asked, moving his hand as Maria put his plate in front of him. 

The young woman made a big production out of unrolling her calendar.  She displayed the July page, and the flipped back to June.  “Esmeralda’s eggs should be hatching,” she chirped.

Johnny’s head dropped against his chest, his dark bangs falling across his forehead and hiding his eyes.  Scott knew he was laughing; what he didn’t know was why. 

Murdoch smiled across at his ward, a bemused smile touching his lips.  “Nature isn’t always as precise as we like, Teresa.”  He reached out, tapping her forehead with his finger, the smile growing.  “Point in case: your own arrival; and it wasn’t according to Mother Nature’s clock.”

Teresa blushed.  She was supposed to have been an early November baby, and she hadn’t arrived until the first week in December.  “I realize that, Murdoch,” she murmured.  “But I just have this feeling; you know?”

Johnny was shifting in his chair.  His plate was almost empty, and he reached out to help himself to some more bacon, using his fingers.  He heard his father sigh.

Murdoch decided he had put things off long enough.  “John, there is no point in delaying this discussion any longer.  We need to talk about what happened last night.”

The youth was chewing his bacon; which suddenly lost all its flavor.  “So, I guess you want to see me in the Great Room,” he muttered.  He sunk down a bit in his chair.  “Or in your study.”

Surprisingly, Murdoch shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “We’re going to take a walk over to the guard house; you, your brother and me.”  He cocked an eye at his son when he saw the flicker of belligerence. 

“Why the guard house?” Johnny asked warily.  It occurred to him then, that the Old Man might just be pissed off enough to actually lock him up.

Murdoch finished the last of his coffee and stood up.  “Because, beginning tomorrow, you and your brother and the Simmons’ twins are going to be using the guard house for a school room.  Your schoolroom.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open.  “Aww, c’mon, Murdoch…  You’re jokin’, right?”

Scott shoved back his chair.  “I could only wish,” he grimaced.  “It seems, little brother, our father thinks I need to hone my supervisory skills.”

Reluctantly, the brunet pushed his own chair away from the table; not giving a damned at the noise as the wood scraped across the tile.  “So, it’s your fault,” he sniped.

“Isn’t it always?” Scott shot back, following his father out of the room.

Teresa wiped her lips with her napkin; also rising and intending to follow as Johnny trudged his way out of the room.  The idea of her brother in school — any type of school — was just too good to pass up.  She was visibly disappointed when Scott caught her by the shoulders as she crossed the threshold and gently turned her in the direction of the hen house.  “Chickens,” he said, nodding towards the structure.  With any luck, Esmeralda’s eggs had hatched, and the young woman would be out of his hair.

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

They entered the guard house single file, Murdoch in the lead.  He nodded in greeting to Mateo and Paco, smiling as he surveyed the room and took note of their hard work.  A small table with a single chair had been placed right next to the door, and beyond that, in front of the single, locked cell; another, longer table Murdoch recognized as coming from the abandoned chapel.  That table had a matching, single bench; more than large enough for Johnny and the Simmons’ twins to sit together.

Scott stepped out from behind his father, surprised to see a large chalk board angled against one wall; the light from the single window illuminating the freshly washed slate.  There was a supply of chalk, and a soft chamois cloth lying in the tray.  “Sir?”

Murdoch smiled.  “Charlie Bellingham.  He insisted I buy the slate board and chalk when he was teaching your mother and me Spanish.”  The memories warmed his eyes.  “It wasn’t enough, in his opinion, that we spoke the language; he insisted we also learned to write as well.  He also used it to map out Lancer; places your mother and I hadn’t even seen yet.”  His fingers traced the edge of the old board.  “We can get anything else you’ll be needing from town.”

Scott nodded.  “The new McGuffey’s Readers,” he said.  “Mrs. McIntyre suggested them, and she’ll be using them at the school in Green River come fall.”

Johnny was exploring the room.  He was pouting.  “I’ll take the whuppin’,” he said.  “And all the extra chores.”

Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched.  “This,” he said, gesturing to the room, “is going to be your extra chores; for now.”  It was clear from his voice he was not going to tolerate any argument. 

Stubbornly, Johnny was shaking his head.  “Won’t do it,” he said finally.

“Oh, but you will,” Murdoch snapped back.

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

The scream, Scott was certain, was heard well beyond the broad expanses of the San Joaquin Valley; possibly all the way to Sacramento.  It was coming from the hen house.

When they stepped through the open door, Teresa was hyperventilating.  Esmeralda was steadfastly remaining on her nest, but in obvious distress.  Her squawking was increasing in intensity and pitch, and Teresa…

Teresa was in front of the nesting box, her eyes growing wider as she watched what was unfolding.  From beneath the plump hen, a variety of creatures were making their presence known.  The young woman leaned in closer, watching as a baby turtle poked its head from beneath Esmeralda’s plump breast.  Then a chick appeared; not a fluffy, yellow feathered little dumpling, but a sharp-beaked and almost totally naked beast with huge vicious eyes that radiated evil even through closed lids.  The chick’s head was almost as large as Esmeralda’s.

Taking in a huge breath of air, Teresa peered in even closer.  It was when the snake slithered out from beneath Esmeralda’s wing the girl fainted.

Quickly, Scott moved forward, catching the young woman before she tumbled to the floor.  He shot a quick look at his brother, who was backing towards the door.  Too late.  The youth stumbled over the dozen newly hatched chicks who were being herded towards the door by the scraggly hen Johnny had gifted with Señora Baldemero’s fertilized eggs.

“John Lancer!”  Murdoch roared.  Leaving his elder son to attend to his ward, the tall Scot headed in the direction his son had just fled, following the trail of dust towards the barn.

Racing across the corral, Johnny risked a backwards glance at his father.  The Old Man was coming after him full bore; like a runaway locomotive, and gaining.  In his desperation to get away, Johnny missed the side door opening to the barn and connected with the wood framing with a resounding thwack.  The force lifted him up off his feet, which were still pumping furiously, and slammed him onto the hard packed earth; the air whooshed out of his body in a single, pained grunt.  Puffs of dirt rose around his body, and for the span of a few seconds he couldn’t even get a breath.  Rolling to his side, he realized having the wind knocked out of him was the least of his current problems.  Murdoch was still bearing down on him and from his supine view his father resembled a giant.  This had to be how them little six inch people — the Lilliputians, Scott called them — must have felt when ol’ Gulliver showed up.

In spite of his anger, Murdoch winced in sympathy when his youngest impacted the door frame.  However, the feeling was fleeting; easily shook off as he recalled the chaos Johnny and the Simmons twins had caused at the town’s Independence Day celebration.  Snatching a braided reata that was hanging from one of the corral posts, he continued in pursuit of his son.

Panting noisily as his lungs finally expanded with air, Johnny scrambled to his feet, intent on reaching his horse and making good his escape.  He wouldn’t have time to saddle Barranca and wasn’t planning to.  Slapping the dirt from his pants, he started forward, only to realize Cipriano was standing in the main aisle of the barn, his massive arms crossed over his barrel sized chest. Awww Hell, Cip looks as pissed off as the old man.

Frantically back stepping to evade the Segundo, Johnny emerged from the barn butt first.  The high pitch whistle of a rope in circular flight caused him to whirl around just in time to avoid capture by Murdoch’s lasso. Bobbing and weaving, Johnny raced across the barnyard, his spurs continuously jingling as he kicked up sand with his quick direction changes.  HA! Murdoch’s legs might be longer; but I’m younger, he thought smugly.  And desperation was such a magnificent incentive.

Teresa’s initial screams had attracted a crowd, and the ranch hands now turned their attention to the cat and mouse game between father and son.  The older hand’s called encouragement to their boss, while the younger workers, many friends with Johnny, hooted and cheered the youngest Lancer on.  It looked like youth and speed were going to win.

“I have a twenty dollar gold piece for the man that lassos my son,” Murdoch called out tiredly as he stopped, bent over at the waist and planted his hands on his knees.

Thinking he had won as the hands disappeared in all directions to retrieve their ropes, Johnny tossed off a gleeful “Later!” pausing just long enough to put his thumb to his nose and waggle his fingers at his father and his brother.  With the Old Man so tuckered out, and Scott still dealing with Teresa, he was home free!

Confident, he slowed down; reaching out to open the corral gate.  The next thing he knew, a lariat dropped over his head; encasing his arms.  OH SHIT!  Before he could wriggle himself free, the rope was cinched tight with a vicious yank that took him off his feet.  He hit the hard packed ground and for the second time in the last few minutes, the air was driven from his lungs.  He was powerless to fight the inevitable as his father slowly pulled him, in a hand over hand motion, right to his feet.

“John Lancer,” Murdoch growled.  He found himself staring at the top of his son’s head.  “Look at me when I’m speaking to you, young man.”

He didn’t want to look, he really didn’t; but like a moth drawn to a flame, he couldn’t stop fate.  Lifting his head, Johnny licked his lips, the action filling his mouth with sand that coated his face and clothes from his two falls.  Spitting the grit out, his eyes focused on his father’s dusty boots, and then traveled up his long legs, past the hands with the death grip on the rope, and finally arrived at his face.  His eyes widened, and he swallowed; hard.  Murdoch’s face was sweaty and red, his lips were pressed into thin white lines, his nostrils were flaring with every breath, and the vein at the corner of his right eye was huge and blue; throbbing, it seemed, with every beat of the old man’s heart. Oh shit, I did it again.  Got me one of those push comes to shove things big brother is always warning me about.  He took a moment to consider his options, and realized there was just one.  “Lo siento, Papí,” he murmured.

 “HA!” Murdoch snorted sardonically, “You aren’t in the least bit sorry for anything other than being caught.”  Displaying not one mote of his earlier well-faked fatigue, he lifted his son and tossed him over his shoulder as if the boy were nothing more than a sack of feed.  “But you will be sorry, young man.   You absolutely will be very sorry.”  WHAP!

July 2010 




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