Design a site like this with
Get started

The Long Trip Home by Southernfrau and Kit

Sadly, Southernfrau is no longer with us. Her stories are archived here for her friends to remember her by. Enjoy her legacy to Lancer.

Word Count 57,290

Lancer, A New Century story
Author’s note on Lancer ANC

Follows Grief In my Sorrow

Kit’s Disclaimer:  Don’t need no stinkin’ disclaimer, but SF might want to add her fifty cents worth here (inflation).  However, maybe she will agree with me that in this Lancer Universe, Alternative or otherwise, our Johnny is young, very young.  Hell, he hasn’t even had sex yet.  The legal age for boys is 21, girls, 18 (you’ll figure out the why when Miss Prissy shows up).  Papa’s word is law, Scott is really serious about his role as big brother, Jelly has decided he’s way too old for the Gramps thing, Harlan Garrett is part of the family fold, and above all:  Lancer takes care of its own.
Southernfrau’s Disclaimer: Before you can disclaim something you first have to claim something and since I claimed nothing I figure I am free and clear…and that’s my fifty cents worth plus four bottle tops and a half full pixie stix.



The problems became painfully obvious after the family returned from the jungle rescue.  In retrospect, there had been indications that Johnny’s behavior and conduct had changed even before the kidnapping; minor problems at first, but the trouble was now escalating.

Johnny’s instant celebrity after the Olympic Games had left the young man a bit full of himself.  He had endured the slew of exploitive publicity that had brought with it the unwanted attention from his peers; yet once things had settled down, he found himself bored.  School was boring.  Life at the small ranch in Sabinal was boring; and Johnny found himself yearning not only for privacy but for some genuine excitement.

Then the kidnapping had occurred, and — after the successful rescue mission — the young man found himself, once again, the center of unwanted, world-wide attention.  Although he had secretly longed for his father to acknowledge him, the disclosure that he was General Murdoch Lancer’s son brought not only the crush of the international media, but unwanted scrutiny.  All of a sudden he found the world at large holding him to the same rigid expectations of his father; and the least little misstep ended up fodder for the newspapers and gossip sheets.

Adding to the young man’s agony: the one constant in his life, Gramps, was now deeply involved in a relationship with a mysterious woman named Angeline Ferris.  The woman was almost half his age.  What had started as a casual acquaintance when Gramps had met the younger woman at the TA truck stop where she was waitressing; had turned into a secretive romance.  Johnny had discovered the relationship by accident, spotting the couple having lunch together on a day that he had skipped school.  He had distrusted her from the get-go, and that feeling had quickly morphed into full out hate when she began to monopolize all of Gramps time after their return from South America.

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

Scott Lancer lounged back in the over-stuffed swivel chair; his long legs stretched out, ankles crossed.  Like the other men relaxing in the expanse of the Leer jet’s well appointed lounge, he was still dressed in the clothing they had worn during their mission to South America.

The blond was on the telephone, his voice betraying the fatigue that had begun to replace the adrenaline high he had been experiencing.  He spoke without any hesitation, knowing the line he was using was secure.  “I want to thank you again, Grandfather, for the use of your aircraft.”  There was a moment of quiet as his Grandfather acknowledged his heartfelt thanks.  “Murdoch has decided that we will do our debriefing at Fort Carson.”  His voice lowered, and he sought out his father and brother, nodding at the older man.  Johnny was seated on the carpeted floor, his head resting against his father’s thigh; eyes closed and obviously asleep.  Murdoch’s hand was resting lightly on the brunet’s head; occasionally brushing the boy’s dark hair away from his forehead.  “We need the privacy, Grandfather, after everything that occurred on our return; and we both feel that Johnny needs to be examined by the medical staff.”  Another brief silence and then, “I will call you, sir, as soon as we’ve concluded our business.”  He smiled, listening to his Grandfather, and then bid his farewell.  “Good night, Sir.”

Hanging up the phone, he uncrossed his legs and stood up.  “Chris,” he greeted; patting the team leader’s shoulder as he made his way across the room.  “Is there anything else I can get you?”  His gaze swung to the other MAG 7 warriors.  “Any of you?”

Larabee’s smile was instant and genuine.  He gestured at the plane’s plush interior with the near empty drink tumbler he held in his left hand.  An empty plate with the remainders of a king-sized T-bone sat on the table at his right elbow.  “A man could get used to this, Scott,” he said.  “Any chance you could convince your Grandfather to make this a permanent arrangement for our future return trips?”

“Hear, hear!” Six other voices rang out in chorus, followed by good natured, though soft laughter.

Scott joined in.  “I’ve found, Chris, that my Grandfather’s generosity has its limits!  However, I’m sure that if you gentleman can arrange for some leave time, he could be convinced to provide you with a similar ride.”

A muted dinging interrupted the verbal horseplay, the overhead seat belt warning light beginning to flash; the pilot’s voice droning out the ETA over the speaker system.  Scott gave Larabee’s shoulder a final pat and headed toward the place where his father was sitting.  Bending down, he gently put his hands beneath Johnny’s arms and eased the younger man into the chair next to Murdoch and buckled him in.  He then took his own seat, his long fingers nimbly fastening his own seat belt.  “I think he could sleep through an earthquake,” he breathed, smiling across at his father.

From across the aisle, Jelly spoke up.  “He’s just plumb tuckered out,” he observed.  The old man shook his head.  “There’s gonna be one hell of a mess to clean up when I get him home,” he murmured.

Murdoch’s mouth turned down in a sudden frown that faded as quickly as it had appeared.  “I’ll make some calls, Jelly; once we get settled in at Fort Carson.  And Gabe Hawkins?  Is he still sheriff in Sabinal?”

Jelly nodded.  “Uvalde County, now,” he answered.  “I can talk to him; have him get a crew out to the place.  Hector and his boys will pitch in, too.”  Jelly’s ranch was small and self sufficient, but he had three full time hands — Hector Ignacio and his grown sons, Patrick and Jesse — that tended to the day-to-day chores.  “My God, Murdoch!  I never gave a thought to those boys…!”

The Scot leaned forward and laid a big hand on Hoskins’ right knee.  “I talked to the head agent from the FBI who was pulled in because of the kidnapping,” he said.  “He felt — and rightly so — that Sandoval had someone watching your place for some time before his men made the hit.  They picked a time when Hector and his boys were away from the main house.”  He shook his head; his voice lowering.  “I don’t think those men expected to walk into a fire fight…”

The older man’s head dropped.  “Johnny had his guns out; was cleanin’ ‘em before he left for school.”  His voice trembled, the next words coming in a near whisper.  “I was chewin’ the boy out for leavin’ a mess on the coffee table, when those yahoos came bustin’ in…”

Murdoch’s eyes closed; visions of a blood bath from another time coming unbidden, the irony of the recent tragedy striking him with the force of a sledge hammer.  His great scheme to keep his youngest son safe had been for naught.  It was time, he thought, past time, to bring his boy home.  He cleared his throat.  “Jelly,” he began.

Sensing what his father was about to say, and feeling it was the wrong time, Scott reached out.  Before he could speak, he felt the great plane shudder, and heard the slow grind as the wheel bays opened and the mechanism to lower the wheels engaged.  Beside him, he felt his younger brother stir; Johnny’s shoulders tensing as he suddenly bolted upright; his breaths coming in great gasps as he realized he was strapped in place.  “íPapí!  (Papa!)”    

Jelly forgotten, Murdoch immediately turned his attention to his younger son.  Johnny’s eyes were wide, unfocused, and it was clear from his expression he was in some nether world; some private Hell that refused to release him, to allow him to wake up.  “Johnny,” he crooned.  He grabbed the boy’s hand and squeezed; hard.  “Johnny!”

Ignoring the flashing seat belt light, Scott unbuckled and levered himself out of his chair.  Adjusting his stance to allow for the airplane’s sudden descent, he positioned himself in front of his brother, bending at the knees.  He reached out; delivering a sharp, open-handed slap to his brother’s left cheek.   “Johnny!!”

The dark eyelids fluttered, awareness finally lighting the blue eyes.  The younger man stared up at his brother.  “Scott?”  He raised his hand, fingering the welt that was forming above his cheekbone; the flesh hot beneath his fingertips.  “What the hell did you do that for?” he demanded.  Looking around, he struggled to get his bearings.  “Where the fuck…”

Scott dropped back on his haunches.  “Grandfather’s jet,” he answered.  His brow furrowed, and he exchanged a quick glance with his father.  “What do you remember, Johnny?” he asked, the words coming softly; filled with concern.  “Talk to me, brother,” he coaxed.

Johnny was still attempting to claw himself up from the dark place that was still threatening to swallow him alive.  The fingers of his right hand were digging at the seat belt.  “Imelda,” he whispered.  “She was gonna sell her baby…”  He closed his eyes and shook his head.

Murdoch studied his younger son’s face.  “Son,” he whispered.

Johnny was staring at his fingers.   He saw blood; bright red blood and bits of flesh.  The rushed breathing started again.  “Jungle,” he muttered.  Staring down at his hands, he began trying to scrub the blood away.  His head hurt.  God, how his head hurt!  And his belly…  “Gonna be sick,” he said.

Scott grabbed for the plastic bag that lined the bolted down trash can between the seats.  Using both hands, he stretched it out in an oval and shoved it under his brother’s chin.

The brunet began to vomit.  It didn’t help that the airplane had just touched down; the wheels bouncing against the tarmac, once — twice.  Johnny continued to retch, his belly convulsing violently.  He was throwing up bile now, and the stench was overwhelming.

Murdoch was out of his seat before the jet rolled to a complete stop.  He headed towards the cabin; punching the intercom button.  “We need an ambulance, stat!”

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

Scott Lancer was normally a cool, calm and collected person but the abject misery Johnny was currently suffering had his own stomach protesting in sympathy and had him wishing he could get his hands on whoever it was that had drugged his little brother.  Johnny’s face had taken on an ashen gray color as the bout of sickness continued.  Team Seven’s medic Nathan Jackson came to their aid as soon as the plane stopped.  He was just in time to support Johnny as the youth began to list in the seat, his body becoming limp as his head came to rest on his brother’s shoulder.  Scott’s hands were full holding the plastic bag open and under Johnny’s chin so he was glad for the help.

One of Nathan’s large dark hands rubbed Johnny’s back and the other was placed on his forehead, gently lifting and supporting Johnny’s head as he continued with unproductive heaves.  The placement of his hand displaced Johnny’s hair revealing the crude stitches someone had sewn in the gash on his temple.  Scott frowned, his brow furrowing in obvious anger at the physical reminder of Johnny’s ordeal.

Murdoch returned, his long legs brushing against Scott’s side as he maneuvered by him to take the seat on the other side of Johnny.  His face paled when he took in the rapidly deteriorating condition of his youngest.  Murdoch winced, a feeling of uselessness washing over him as Johnny turned beseeching blue eyes towards him, as though begging him to make the suffering stop.

“Nathan, is this a reaction to the drugs?” Murdoch inquired as he raised a calloused hand and gently placed it against Johnny’s face.  His heart skipped a beat when Johnny turned his face into the touch and rested his cheek trustingly in his palm.

“It could be a host of things, sir.  Obviously the drugs are having some effect, but it could also be a mix of altitude sickness or some bug he picked up in the jungle; not to mention I see the beginnings of an infection around these stitches,” Nathan replied, his long fingers looking even darker against the frail color of Johnny’s face as he pointed to the puckered area on his temple and the reddened and swollen line running through the black thread used to close the cut.

Johnny jerked when Jelly appeared in front of him as well, the older man fairly vibrating with nervous energy.  All of a sudden he felt closed in, like there wasn’t enough oxygen for him and all these people invading his space. He flailed his arms trying to move them because he was too busy trying to inhale enough air to speak to them; if he could, he would tell them to get the hell away from him.   He opened his mouth as he struggled to breathe and found himself wishing his determined big brother would quit following his head movements with that damn plastic bag; certain he was going to suck it up his nose and be suffocated by it in his attempt to get enough oxygen.  Despite his best efforts, his distress increased and yellow spots began to dance before his eyes; his arms growing too heavy to hold up.  They dropped like lead weights to his side; as if he were a marionette and someone had just cut the strings.  The yellow spots dimmed against the blanket of black; and just as he was slipping into unconsciousness, the darkness was replaced by a fireball exploding and reducing the figure of Imelda to ashes as she tried to hand him a plate with a baby on it. The wind roared in his ears and the inferno returned; this fire more intense than the other, the colors brilliant against a velvet black flume of smoke, a beautiful woman, bathed in blood, rising above the flickering flames while a small child stood on the ground beneath her and reached for her piteously crying out, Mama, Mama…

Alarmed when Johnny’s frantic thrashing ceased and was replaced with a growing look of horror on his colorless face, Murdoch took action.  “Everybody get back,” he ordered, “give him room!”  Just as Nathan moved his hand, Johnny collapsed into his father’s ready arms with another strangled whimper of, “Mama.”

“Where the Hell is that God damn ambulance,” Murdoch roared, clutching Johnny to him.  Standing, he swung Johnny up into his arms and made his way over to one of the couches, and laid him down.  Scott knotted the near-full plastic bag and discarded it, quickly following after his father.

The hatch of the jet opened and the paramedics from the airport’s fire department rushed up the stairs and into the plane.  The medics didn’t even spare a look at the opulence of the private jet; but the sight of ten men dressed in BDUs surrounding an eleventh individual dressed in black motorcycle leathers stalled their hurried steps for the span of a second.

“What have we got here,” asked the older looking of the two paramedics.

Murdoch’s response was terse; to the point.  “This is my eighteen year old son, Johnny.  He was kidnapped, drugged and held hostage.  He has a gash on his head that was stitched in less than sanitary conditions and it appears to be infected.  As we were landing, he began vomiting; to the point of dry heaves.  He’s also feverish.”

Opening his kit the medic took out a bp cuff and stethoscope.  A quick check revealed a rapid pulse and slightly elevated pressure.  The ear thermometer placed his temperature at 101.2.  Taking a penlight from his pocket, the paramedic checked Johnny’s eyes, and then pinched the top of his hand causing Johnny to stir and blink, waking though confused.  Speaking into the radio receiver attached to his shoulder strap, the medic reported his findings to the hospital, listening intently to the static-filled instructions.  At once, he began an IV of D5W for the dehydration and prepared for transport.

“Sir, we’ll be taking him to Penrose St. Francis Hospital…” the medic began to explain before the General cut him off.

“Oh no, you won’t!  My son will be transported to the Evans US Army Hospital at Fort Carson,” the General barked.

Taken aback by the strange turn of events, the paramedic attempted to regain control of the situation.  “Sir, we don’t have clearance to enter the Post.  Carson has their own emergency services and I wouldn’t even know how to go about getting permission to enter…”   He began stuttering, nervousness washing over him as the big officer straightened to his full height, towering over him menacingly.

The top of Murdoch’s head brushed the sloped ceiling of the jet’s cabin as he pulled himself erect. “Young man, I am not in the habit of having my orders questioned!  I’m all the clearance you need to gain entry,” he snapped.

Stepping back timidly from the intimidating officer, the paramedic contacted their base hospital to let them know the ambulance would be transporting the patient to Fort Carson.

“I ain’t going,” Johnny protested.  He struggled to sit up, pressing himself against the back of the couch as he heard the noisy arrival of the gurney, and then saw the wheeled stretcher being maneuvered into the cabin by airport security guards.  Fingers digging deeply into the cushions, he repeated the words; this time at a greater volume.  “I ain’t going!!”

“Oh, yes, you are, young man,” Murdoch declared, reaching out and lifting Johnny and placing him on the stretcher when he tried to scoot away from the paramedics.  He further angered his son when he held him in place, bracing his hand on the youth’s chest while the men strapped him in.

“Let me up, you cock sucking mother-fuckers!” Johnny shouted; panic overcoming him as he tried to escape the belts restraining him. His contrariness at being ordered about fueled his frantic reaction and his body contorted with his wild writhing about.

There was an audible gasp as Scott reacted to his younger brother’s burst of profanity.  Jelly’s face went ash white, and the normally verbose old timer was shocked into total silence.

To everyone’s great surprise, instead of losing his temper and bringing his son to firmly into line, General Lancer dropped down on one knee beside the gurney and began whispering into his son’s ear.  Johnny’s struggles immediately ceased and the cursing stopped.  Instinctively, he canted his head in his father’s direction, his breathing becoming more relaxed as he endeavored to hear what was being said.  The whispering continued until the exhausted youth gave it up and surrendered to a near-peaceful slumber.

“Well, that was a surprise,” commented Scott, a bemused smirk on his face that lifted the corners of his mouth as well as his eyebrows.  He patted his father’s shoulder.  “I bet you’ve never tried that on one of your soldiers.”

“Seems I was reminded not long ago that Johnny is not one of my soldiers and I would do well not to treat him like one,” Murdoch replied, nodding his head in acknowledgement to the author of that advice, his old friend Jelly. “That was the same trick Maria and I used when he was a toddler.  The louder he screamed the quieter we spoke and his natural curiosity would make him calm down to hear what we were whispering.”

Together, the Lancers and Jelly departed the plane.  There was a brief pause in activity as everyone touched down on the tarmac; and a round of hand-shaking as Murdoch and Scott once again thanked Team Seven for their help.  Larabee stood with his men in a ragged circle as they watched the gurney being lifted down from the jet; and then the team snapped to attention.  Visibly touched by their gesture, Murdoch and Scott returned the salutes.  They watched as Larabee and his men headed for the military transport van that would take them to the base for their debriefing.

Scott stared after the departing van.  “We were incredibly lucky to have them, sir,” he said softly.

Murdoch nodded.  “They certainly deserve their reputation as best of the best,” he agreed.  Turning his attention back to the paramedics and his son, he gestured towards the ambulance.  “I’ll be riding in the back with your brother,” he announced.

Scott watched as his father climbed up into the back of the boxy bus style ambulance with the older medic; thumping the closed door with the flat of his hand.  And then, reaching out to grab Jelly’s arm, he guided the forlorn older man towards the front cab.  He kept hold, surprised when Jelly didn’t object as he helped the old gunny into the front seat.  Once Jelly was settled in, he swung up and took his own seat; his eyes settling briefly on the reflection in the right-hand mirror.  Behind him, he could see the tail lights of the Mag 7’s departing van.

The trip to Fort Carson was uneventful until they entered the Post and stopped at the first gated checkpoint.  The guard on duty extended his arm, hand up and palm out, stopping the emergency vehicle.  He walked towards the driver side, his hand dropping to his holstered weapon.  Before he could tap on the window the medic that was driving rolled it down.

The sergeant frowned.  Six foot three and fully buffed, the career M.P. took his job seriously.  He also harbored the usual military disdain for all things civilian.  “This is a United States Military Installation,” he growled.  “You do not have authorization to enter the premises. Fort Carson does not utilize outside emergency services. Pull this vehicle up, turn around and leave,” he ordered, his eyes narrowing suspiciously as he spied the BDU clad Scott and Jelly.  Still, he refused to stand down.

The back door of the ambulance slammed opened, drawing the guard’s attention.  He pivoted smartly to march to the rear of the vehicle; coming to an abrupt halt as he snapped off a smart salute when a giant of a man loomed into his sight.

“General, sir,” he greeted, standing stiffly at attention and holding the salute.

Holding up his ID, Murdoch approached the soldier; touching his own forehead in a curt acknowledgement of the younger man’s gesture. “Sergeant McCray,” the General boomed, reading the man’s rank and name from his uniform.  “I want a military police escort for this ambulance to the Post dispensary.  My son is in need of immediate medical attention.”

McCray was mentally kicking his own ass for his near blunder.  “Yes, sir.  It’s been reported all over the news.  We were told to expect you for debriefing but we were not advised you would be arriving in an ambulance.  A van was sent to the airport for you.  I’ll escort you personally.”  Calling for the other guard to take over, McCray marched to his jeep, cranked it and pulled out in front of the ambulance, waiting for Murdoch to return to the emergency vehicle before taking off.


The ambulance backed into the bay of the emergency entrance, where it was met by Colonel Fitzgerald, two orderlies and a nurse.   The back door opened and the medic grabbed the head of the gurney, guiding it out as an orderly pulled the foot.  As soon as his feet hit the ground the paramedic recited his assessment.

“The patient is an eighteen year old male, Johnny Lancer, the victim of a kidnapping and hostage situation.  Upon initial check his pulse and bp are elevated; temp 101.2.  He has thrown up to the point of eliminating stomach bile.  There is a gash on his forehead that has been crudely sutured and shows evidence of infection.”  The man’s hands were busy as he continued his examination; and he gently manipulated Johnny’s head, turning the boy’s face away as he used two fingers to probe for a pulse.  “There is a puncture wound on his neck — correction, two puncture wounds.”  For the first time, the medic looked up, his eyes seeking an explanation.

Murdoch’s eyes were gun-metal grey.  “His assailants used a tranquilizer dart during the initial attack.  God only knows what else was done to him.”

Roderick nodded and picked up his pace; holding the bag of D5W aloft as he maneuvered the gurney down the passageway towards the wide double doors.  “This is Johnny’s father, General Lancer,” the medic indicated with a nod of his head towards the big man following the cart into the exam room, the door swinging shut. The doors immediately swung back open as Scott and Jelly rushed into the room followed by Paramedic Richardson.

“Mike, Kel,” Colonel Fitzgerald addressed the orderlies, “As soon as you get Johnny transferred to the table, please take his family down to the lounge,” he commanded.

Murdoch was already shaking his head.  “I’m not leaving my son,” he protested, stepping aside long enough for the paramedics to retrieve their gurney and leave.

“Yes, sir, you are,” Colonel Fitzgerald stated, raising his hand to stall the argument about to spill from the worried father’s lips.  “You out rank me, General, but in here my word is law.  I have the necessary info to begin treatment of your son and you have some paper work you need to fill out.”  He nodded to the nurse, who — in turn — handed a loaded clipboard and ballpoint pen to the eldest Lancer.

Murdoch’s lips pursed in obvious displeasure.  He had not let Johnny out of his sight since his liberation from Sandoval’s camp and it didn’t feel right to do so now.  Stepping closer to the table and picking up Johnny’s warm hand, he brushed his son’s hair back, as much to comfort himself as Johnny; scowling slightly when the simple action revealed the botched suture job on his son’s temple.  “Your brother, Gramps and I will be nearby,” he murmured.  “We’ll see you as soon as the doctor finishes.”

Johnny swallowed; the dryness in his mouth causing a burn at the back of his throat.  “Okay,” he agreed; hating that he was still flat on his back but resigned to his fate; his voice sounding raspy from the repeated bouts of sickness.

His hand still resting on his son’s forehead, Murdoch addressed the physician.  “Colonel Fitzgerald, I expect to be informed as soon as you know anything.  I would also appreciate it if you would call in a plastic surgeon to tend to his temple wound to minimize scarring.”

After giving Scott and Jelly a chance to speak to Johnny, Murdoch escorted them out of the room.  As the door was swinging shut he heard the doctor issue orders for a CBC and Chem Seven before the man’s voice was cut off by the closed door and there was nothing but an eerie silence.

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

Scott had lost count of the number of times he had paced the perimeter of the carpeted lounge, finally giving up the marching in favor of sitting down and computing the number of 2 x 4’ acoustical ceiling tiles above his head.  Desperate for something to keep his mind occupied, he began formulating the volume of the room; as if it was a necessary thing.  Finally, the doctor appeared at the door.

Murdoch’s body stiffened when he noticed the cautious attitude of the doctor and the way he held Johnny’s chart close to his chest.  Apprehension stole the moisture from his mouth and made his limbs feel weary and uncoordinated as he pushed his tall frame up from the low sitting couch.  “How bad?” he asked, glancing nervously at Scott and Jelly as they rose from their chairs and moved closer.  There was no point in mincing words.

Fitzgerald’s face remained guarded, but betrayed nothing and his voice was remarkably calm.  “Please sit back down, General.  I need to discuss the test results with you and ask you some questions.”

Murdoch dropped back down on the sofa with a heavy plop.  He scrubbed anxiously at his face with trembling hands, and then clasped them together under his chin as if he might start praying.  Scott and Jelly took seats on either side of him.  Jelly patted his back and Scott his knee.

The doctor smiled, slightly amused the notoriously rough and tough General Lancer would ever need any kind of comforting; but then this wasn’t the experienced soldier he was about to face, it was a worried father.  Drawing up one of the smaller chairs, he sat down, directly in front of Murdoch.  “First and foremost,” he began, “we’re dealing with a series of traumas of varying degrees that occurred in stages.  Johnny’s elevated pulse and bp were due to the fever; which in turn was caused by the infection originating with the gash in his temple.”  He reached out, placing his fingers on the older man’s knee and giving it a pat before withdrawing his hand.  “The plastic surgeon has already removed the stitches, cleaned the wound properly and sutured it with cosmetic grade silk.”  He continued.  “Johnny does have a mild concussion from the blow that caused the wound.  As to the bouts of sickness when you were landing…” his brow furrowed.  “In all likelihood, the vomiting was due to the concussion and the drugs.”  He took a deep breath before continuing; knowing he was about to go down a path he had trod too many times before; with too many parents.  “At this time, General, I believe the greatest concern is the toxicology report,” he revealed, raising his eye brows in an uneasy manner.

Murdoch’s jaws flexed.  “What about the toxicology reports?” he asked; dread robbing his body of warmth as a chill began a slow crawl up his spine.

Fitzgerald recognized the tone and chose to ignore it.  “We found more needle marks and bruising on Johnny’s neck, and there were trace amounts of strong sedatives in his system indicating they had been there over twenty –four hours.  I believe them to be the substance they used to tranquilize Johnny.  The troubling news is the lab detected the presence of some unknown chemicals,” the doctor paused gauging their reaction to the news, and then proceeding when they remained quiet.  “These unknown chemicals have the composition of what are known as designer drugs.”  His brow furrowed as he considered his next words, already certain of what the response would be, if not the answer.  He braced himself for the coming storm.  “Do you think, General, that your son might be doing drugs?”

“WHAT?” Murdoch bellowed.  “Absolutely not! Johnny would not do that!”

“Ain’t no way, doc,” declared Jelly, his whiskered face shaking side to side.  “My boy hates needles.  I use to have to hold him down to get his shots.  And getting him to take medicine is harder than finding hen’s teeth.”

Scott shifted uncomfortably in his seat; coming forward and resting his elbows on his knees as the Colonel turned his attention to him, seeking his opinion.  He knew what he was about to say would make his father mad as hell but his work in Naval Intelligence had taught him to always consider all possibilities, even the most seemingly outlandish ones.  Swallowing back his hesitation he decided to play the devil’s advocate and voiced his concerns.  “Can we be that sure, sir?”  Turning to Jelly, Scott continued. “You’ve said it yourself, Jelly.  Johnny has been a bit full of himself since all the publicity over what he accomplished at the Olympics.  The speeding tickets; skipping classes.  A one point, you even threatened to take the Harley away from him.”  That one had been a puzzle to Scott.  Jelly had never said why he had made the threat, but he sensed it had to have been something pretty serious.  Scott shrugged at the gob smacked looks of betrayal on the two older men’s faces.  “I’m just saying, for Johnny’s sake, we need to consider all possibilities.”  He wet his lips, his voice lowering.  “Not all drugs require the use of a needle, Jelly.”

The old gunny completely ignored the crack about needles.  “All that trouble was just normal teen rebellion, a boys’ will be boys’ thing,” Jelly sputtered with indignation. “It sure the hell don’t make him no damned drug addict!”

Murdoch’s nostrils flared as he breathed deeply trying to control the explosion of hot anger raging in his chest, his eyes burning with resentment as he studied his oldest.  Finally he spoke, in a voice tight with adamant belief, shadowed by annoyance, the words incredibly soft at first, but the volume rising as he continued to speak.  “May I remind you, Scott; as an Olympic athlete your brother was subjected to random drug testing, both during the trials and most certainly when he was competing.”  He held up his right hand, his forefinger rigid.  “He did not fail one of those tests; not one!  I absolutely will not believe Johnny willingly took any drugs!”

 Doctor Fitzgerald held up his hand, effectively putting a halt to the tirade.  “I needed to ask, but I can tell you the toxicology reports all indicate these drugs were ingested, inhaled or injected within the last seventy-two hours.  If there was any indication he had been abusing drugs, more detailed tests are available; including the hair test, which would tell us for certain if there was any past abuse.”

Murdoch was still glaring at his eldest son.   “Johnny told me on the plane that they drugged him at the ranch when he was taken, on the plane after they transferred from a copter, and then again when they were in a jeep headed to Sandoval’s camp,” he ground out.  “He also told me the evening before he was rescued he was sitting on Sandoval’s porch when someone slipped up behind him and injected something in his neck.  He said it wasn’t like the tranquilizing drug; that whatever it was made him feel like his bones were melting.  Sandoval was furious about it.  That’s why Johnny was in his house when we got there, so no one could approach him without that bastard’s knowledge.”

Fitzgerald leaned forward at this news, his face lighting with more questions.  “Did he say whether or not he hallucinated after the last injection?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “No, but I think he did on the jet after he got sick.  His eyes –” it was obvious the man was struggling to find the right words to clearly explain what he had observed.  “It was as if he went away,” he continued.  “As if he was removed from the here and now and found himself someplace where he didn’t want to be; seeing and experiencing things he could not control.”  His voice lowered.  “He mentioned the name Imelda; said something about how she was going to sell her baby.  As far as I know, Johnny doesn’t know anyone named Imelda.”   He turned his gaze on Jelly; watching as the old man shook his head.

The Colonel nodded.  He was deep in thought; and chewed on his bottom lip as he considered this information.  “I believe he had a similar episode in the treatment room.  He kept insisting there was blood on him; that his hands were covered with blood.

“My concern, General, is we don’t how long the drug he was injected with will stay in his system.  It could very well be designed to lie dormant and then cause reactions days or even weeks later.  I’ve never seen anything even similar in chemical makeup,” he opened up Johnny’s chart, scanning the initial blood work.  His jaws tensed.  Early on, he had put his career in jeopardy when he refused an assignment to a post with the defense department that would have involved him in the development of chemical weapons; feeling it was morally wrong to experiment with drugs with little regard for the long range effects.  He shook the thought away, concentrating on his patient.  “Since we have no immediate way of identifying the components of the compound, we have no way of knowing how the drug is impacting his system, or how it might affect his organs.

“There’s no easy way to say this, sir,” he murmured.  “We are dealing with an unknown here.”  Opening the metal clip board he held in his hands, he tapped at the topmost sheet.  “I’ve drawn blood, and I’ve taken urine samples.  The laboratory here is one of the finest in the country, but some of the results will not be available for several hours.”  He locked eyes with the older man, his gaze unwavering as he continued.  “I am not comfortable spending that time waiting and doing nothing but maintaining the status quo.  It’s my opinion we should be dealing proactively with your son’s condition; in effect, approaching his treatment aggressively as opposed to just standing by.”

The color leeched from Murdoch’s face.  Jelly groaned, falling forward and burying his face in his shaking hands.  Scott hissed angrily, “God damn it.  I wish we could kill that son of a bitch all over again.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and then levered his long frame up from the couch.  His expression betrayed nothing of what he was feeling.  “What do you suggest, Colonel?” he inquired, as if he were asking a respected subordinate for an opinion on a proposed assault.

Fitzgerald resisted the urge to snap to attention. “Normally, if your son was unstable, I would recommend that we let the drug wear off naturally.  Under the current circumstances, however, since we don’t know anything about this drug and how it might affect him later, I suggest we do a dialysis procedure called hemoperfusion.  It’s a treatment we use on overdose cases for quick removal of the drugs.  Due to the uncertainty of what this particular chemical compound might do, I feel it would be wise to use the procedure to thoroughly cleanse his system.”

“I want those drugs out of him,” Murdoch declared, fear for his child fueling his quick reaction.  “Where do I sign?”

The doctor handed over the chart he had been holding, pointing to the permission form on top.  “You need to sign anywhere marked by an x and date it.  We’ll begin right away.  Johnny will be hooked to a dialysis machine for the four hour treatment, and then we’d like to observe him for at least the next twenty-four hours.”

Murdoch hastily scribbled his signature on three lines, and then handed the chart back.  “Will it be possible for us to sit with him during the treatment?  Johnny doesn’t do well with anything involving needles, medicine or sitting still.”

Quickly reviewing the paper to ascertain it was in order the doctor lifted his head and replied, “I think that would be a good idea.  It can be a little traumatizing to watch your blood leaving your body through one tube, cycle through a machine and return through another tube.  If you’ll come with me, he should be situated in room 312 by now and we can explain everything to him.”

The Lancers followed the doctor from the lounge.   As they approached the bank of elevators, Murdoch turned to his elder son and requested, “Scott, would you go see if you can round up some magazines, games or cards…anything to help us occupy your brother and keep him in bed.”

Scott risked a small grin, relieved that his father was no longer angry with him over the drug issue.  He nodded.  “I’ll head over to the PX.  While I’m there I can pick up some clean clothes for all of us.  I don’t know about you but I’m ready to get out of these BDUs.”  Still feeling a need to ease the tension, he leaned in towards Jelly; crinkling his nose as though he found the older man’s scent offensive.  Jelly’s response was to smack the younger man’s compact rear end.

“Do you need some money,” Murdoch asked, reaching in his back pocket for his wallet.

“I have my credit card,” Scott replied, and then turned to ask Jelly, “What size should I get Johnny?  He looks a little taller and slimmer than he did at Christmas.”

Jelly perked up a bit.  “Get him Levis,” he ordered.  “He won’t wear nothin’ but button front, boot cut; twenty-eight waist and a thirty-two length.”  He grinned up at the younger man.  “He likes for his jeans to bunch on top of his boots.  He’ll need a medium shirt — something with color or he’ll throw a fit — and he likes those knit boxers by Hanes.”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened and Murdoch and Jelly followed the doctor inside the car. “I’ll be back as quick as I can,” Scott promised as he turned to walk off.   He shook his head, thinking about Johnny in a pair of boxers.  He’d always thought of his kid brother as someone who would wear as little as possible; white briefs to match the white socks he always favored.


The elevator whined to a stop, the bell dinged and the doors slid open.  Scott stepped out into the hall, his hands full with his purchases from the PX.   Checking the posted signs for the directions to room 312 he identified the corridor he needed and started towards it.  Five steps down the hall and he realized some kind of altercation or was occurring near the end of the passage.

As he drew closer, Scott recognized the unmistakable bellow of his father, and then the raised voice of his little brother, swearing a blue streak in Spanish and English.  Quickening his steps and almost breaking into a flat out run, he reached the room.  The doorway was being blocked by an orderly that could have been Goliath’s twin.

“Excuse me,” Scott stated, “I believe my father could use my help.”  The orderly moved just enough to let Scott squeeze between him and the door jam.

In the room, the blond Lancer’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and then a nervous laugh erupted from his mouth and he tried to clamp it shut but only managed to press his lips into a trembling grin.  Johnny, with his bare behind shining out the open back of his hospital gown, was darting about the room eluding the doctor, the nurse and Murdoch’s hands as they tried to grab him.  Jelly was standing guard at the bathroom door, obviously to prevent Johnny from seeking refuge there.

Scott put two fingers to his lips and blew; the sharp whistle echoing against the marbleized flooring.  When nothing happened, he called out in his best Captain Lancer voice; as if breaking up a bar room brawl between sailors and a bunch of rowdy marines.  “What the Hell is happening here?”

Johnny answered him without even breaking stride.  “I’ll tell you what the Hell ain’t happening,” he shouted as he jumped on the bed, using the mattress as a trampoline to bounce himself past his father.  “I ain’t being stuck full of tubes and needles and having all my blood sucked out by no oversized Wet/Dry shop vac!!  That’s what ain’t happening!” Johnny vowed as he completed a bob and weave maneuver around the room.  Suddenly, the young man did a perfect belly flop and skidded under the bed, rolling out of the reach of his father’s arms.

Scott dropped his bags by the door and shook his head in exasperation.  With a few hand signals to his father, he went over to the bathroom and whispered for Jelly to approach the bed and try to grab for his brother; and then slipped into the bathroom.

Jelly stormed over to the bed and dropped down on his hands and knees; feeling every one of his sixty-six years.  “I’ve had enough of your fit, young man, git on out from under there, right now!” Jelly demanded, sweeping an arm under the bed.  He was, he decided, getting way too old for this shit!

Johnny rolled and scooted out the other side, leapt to his feet and spied the unguarded bathroom door.  He practically crowed in victory as he zig-zagged across the room and snatched the door open, sanctuary at last.

“Gotcha!” shouted Scott triumphantly as Johnny slammed right into his open arms and was caught in their vise like grip.  The blond bobbed his head in a mock bow as an appreciative audience gave him a loud round of applause.

“You sneaky son of a bitch,” Johnny howled, wiggling frantically.  It didn’t help to hear his father and the others laughing like a bunch of jackasses.  “You better let go,” he threatened; only to know further humiliation as his older and taller brother lifted him up until his bare feet were completely off the floor.

Scott held on.  He could feel the growing warmth of Johnny’s body against his chest.  “Quit being difficult,” he whispered.  “You need this treatment, Johnny,” he cajoled.

Johnny was wrestled into the bed, fighting and cursing with every breath until Colonel Fitzgerald decided they’d had enough and he called for assistance.  With the help of two male orderlies, the arm and leg restraints were slapped on and Johnny was strapped in.  Once he realized the fight was futile, he went completely limp, except for his face, which turned as hard and stony as a statute’s.  Johnny clamped his eyes shut and refused to look at, or even acknowledge anyone in the room.   Unable to actively fight them, he switched to passive noncooperation.


Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed; rubbing Johnny’s left shoulder and talking soothingly about the camping trip he wanted them to take, using the horses and going up into the mountains around Lancer.  His intention was to distract Johnny from the activity occurring on the opposite side of the bed.   A second temper tantrum had erupted when the technician had announced they would be using a vein in Johnny’s right arm for the procedure; a decision made necessary by the bulk of the equipment and the tangle of tubes and wires. 

There was an unintentional lag in the conversation as Murdoch winced in sympathy when Johnny gasped and his body went rigid as the first needle was inserted in his arm.  The placement of the second needle took even longer; the procedure made more difficult when Johnny’s veins seemed to roll away from the large gauge siphon.   By the time all the prep work was done, the dialysis machine switched on and a dose of heparin injected into the line, Johnny was close to squeezing the blood out of his father’s hand.  Finally, his grip relaxed.

The forced inactivity had made the youth drowsy, and he began to drift off.  Fighting it, he jerked awake.  “I don’t like this,” he slurred.  He cast a baleful eye at Dr. Fitzgerald, struggling to free his hand in order to give the man a one-fingered salute; frowning when the restraints held fast.  Spearing the physician with a harsh glare, he spat the words “Fucking vampire!” his dark eyelids fluttering and then going still as he was sucked into black void.

Thirty minutes later, Scott watched as his brother once again tensed against the restraints.  “I couldn’t believe what I saw in here when I came back from the PX,” he breathed.

Murdoch’s gaze shifted from his younger son, to the lounge chair where Jelly was now sound asleep, and then back to Scott.  A stack of unopened magazines and a still sealed deck of cards sat on the table between them.  “Fitzgerald said it was a reaction to the IV’s they used to rehydrate him.”  He stretched, wincing at the knot in his back and adjusting his long frame in the only other over-stuffed chair in the otherwise sparse room.  “That, and the drugs,” he grunted.

Scott forced a smile he didn’t feel for his father’s benefit.  “He did make some very impressive moves, sir,” he said.  “Imagine all that energy on the football field.  Sabinal might actually have made it to the playoffs.”

In spite of the gravity of the situation, Murdoch allowed a small smile.  “Your brother is no fan of team sports,” he said, keeping his voice low out of consideration for Jelly as much as for his younger son.   He came forward in the chair, his head canted slightly.  “Johnny, I think, prefers to compete against himself.”

There was a rustling sound as Johnny, once again, attempted to change position on the bed.  Sobering, Scott reached out, his right hand coming to rest on his younger brother’s forehead.  “I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t bring back those night terrors he used to suffer,” he breathed.  As if in confirmation of what Scott was thinking, Johnny began to mumble; the garbled words coming in rapid gasps, incoherent at first and then quite plain.  Fuego (fire), and then, in English, run, run!

Immediately, fully aware of the words Scott had just spoken, Jelly roused from his fitful slumber.  “Lordy…I sure hope not; I’m getting too old for sleepless nights,” he stated wearily.   Palms pressed momentarily against his eyes, he shook his head.  He reached to the side of his chair, pulling the lever and restoring the recliner to its upright position.

Still holding on to Johnny’s left hand, Murdoch’s studied his son’s fingers, unconsciously measuring them against his own.  “Dear God, I thought all this was over when we liberated him from that jungle fortress.  Now it seems like it’s just starting,” he murmured, not realizing how prophetic his statement would be.

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

The twenty-four hours had turned into forty-eight.  Johnny’s dialysis procedure had taken almost five hours to complete; and then he was inexplicably stricken with a grave case of Montezuma’s Revenge.  A series of slow-drip IV’s restored his electrolytes, and by day two, he was allowed to eat.  In the interim, both Scott and Murdoch had completed their briefings; and had showered and cleaned up; both of them now in civilian clothing.  It was agreed that Jelly would provide a written statement.

“So, when can we blow this joint?” Johnny asked between bites of the Whopper Scott had smuggled in.  His hair was still wet from the quick shower he had just taken; and he was stark naked beneath the crisp sheets.

Scott was seated on the foot of the bed.  “Check out is at eleven,” he announced.  Grinning, he held up the pair of blue Hanes boxers; letting them dangle from his crooked forefinger.  “Boxers?” he teased.

Johnny busied himself sucking the grease from his fingertips.  “Girls like ‘em,” he answered nonchalantly.

“Really?” Scott inquired; the skepticism apparent.   He rolled up the underwear and tossed them at his brother’s head.  There were few things Johnny had not confided in his brother.  In fact, during Christmas — in the quiet before the fireplace after the older men had gone to bed — Johnny had been pretty forthcoming in his admission that, while he had been tempted, and had actually indulged in some pretty heavy making out, he had yet to do the deed.  “What girls,” the blond challenged. 

The brunet had finished his second burger and was working hard on his super-sized chocolate shake.  There was a loud slurping sound as he sucked up the last of the syrup at the bottom of his cup.  “All of ‘em,” he said.  He flashed his brother a smile; blue eyes dancing.

Scott was shaking out the new pair of Levis.  “Put all that stuff,” he nodded at the burger wrappers, the paper cup, the empty super-size fry container and napkins, “back in the bag and stick it all in the bottom of that cabinet.”

Johnny belched.  “Murdoch doesn’t know you brought me food?” he asked.  He frowned, his voice lowering.  “What about that doctor, Fitzgerald?”  His eyes swept his brother’s face.  “Ten to one, that guy’s related to Sam Jenkins.”  Unconsciously, he rubbed his ears with his hands.

The blond was smiling.  Johnny had been on the receiving end of a blistering lecture from the Colonel who had threatened to tie Johnny to the bed and personally insert various tubes into every orifice of his body if he didn’t do what he was told.   “It’s something an older brother does,” he announced.  “Sneak food to miscreant baby brothers.”  Certain he had pulled all the tags off the jeans, he handed them off.  The shirt was next.  He began removing pins from the squared shoulders.

Johnny was pulling on his boxers; uncharacteristically modest as he lay back in the bed, keeping his covers on as he wiggled into the shorts.  “That a long sleeved shirt?” he asked.

Scott shook out the tailored shirt.  “This is Colorado,” he answered, “heart of rodeo country.”  He held up the shirt for his brother’s inspection.  The cut and style was definitely western; right down to the mock pearl snaps.  “Long sleeves and tails,” he said.

And plaid, Johnny noted.  At least it was shades of blue and white.  And the long sleeves would do a good job of hiding the bruises and the Band-Aids still firmly affixed to his arms.  “Not bad,” he lied.

“You hate it,” Scott laughed.  “Beggars can’t be choosers, you know.”  He sobered, changing the subject.  “You are being careful, brother?  About all those girls who like your boxers?”

Johnny had just slipped his right leg into his pants.  “Sure,” he tossed off.  “They got a clinic in Sabinal,” he announced.  He stood up, holding his hand out for the shirt.  “Free condoms, just for the askin’.”  Biting his lip, he looked down at the floor.  He was a regular customer at the clinic.  Most of his friends found the store front establishment, which was always under the surveillance of the town’s old biddies that didn’t have anything better to do, too public for their use.  So Johnny had created his own little bit of capitalism.  He sold the condoms he got for free to his buddies; the price dictated by the urgency of the situation.  Friday and Saturday nights were particularly profitable.   “Shirt?” he asked, waggling his fingers at the older man.

Scott had become aware of footsteps in the hallway.  “Stash the litter first,” he instructed.  He watched as Johnny collected the garbage and stuffed it into the bedside cabinet on top of the plastic bed pan.

Murdoch stepped across the threshold just as Johnny finished shutting the cabinet door.  His eyes swept the room; the faint odor of French fries seeming heavy on the air.  He decided not to press the issue.  Holding up the box he had in his right hand, he smiled across at his son.  “New boots,” he announced.   “We couldn’t salvage your other boots, Johnny,” he said.  It was true.  The old boots had not only been stained with vomit; there had been a substantial amount of blood and gore.

Reluctantly, Johnny took the proffered box.  Right now, he couldn’t think of anything he hated more than breaking in a new pair of boots; no matter how good the quality.  There was a sinking feeling at the pit of his belly.  “My leathers?” he asked.  He loved the leather jacket Gramps had bought for him on his last birthday; and the matching leather pants Scott had given him at Christmas.

Jelly bustled through the door.  “Your leathers are gonna be just fine,” he announced.  “Found a saddle shop right here on the base; they’re gonna have ‘em ready to pick up by the time we leave.  Picked you up a belt, too.”

Johnny finished dressing; tucking his shirt tails in.  Scott had bought him a half-dozen pairs of white socks; not that he’d had any choice: it seemed nobody sold white socks in single pairs.  The youth grabbed a pair and pulled them on.

Dr. Fitzgerald came through the door.  He pulled up short beside Jelly; amazed at the transformation he was seeing.   Other than the already fading circles below the younger man’s eyes, Johnny looked extremely fit.  “I’ve written up some prescriptions,” he said, holding aloft three sheets of paper.  “An anti-biotic, something for nausea — if you need it on the flight home — and a refillable script for an iron tonic I want you to take.”  He turned to Murdoch.  “He should see his family physician as soon as he gets home; and there will need to be a second visit to remove the stitches.”  When he heard the younger man swear, he turned and nailed the boy in place with a harsh glare.  “I’ll be looking for a follow-up report in a week’s time,” he said.  “No excuses.”  Then, his tone mellowing, “Did you have breakfast?”

Scott almost choked.  Johnny wasn’t much better.  The two brothers exchanged a quick glance, both of them doing a good job of looking guilty.  The blond cleared his throat.  “I…”  To Hell with it, he thought.  “I stopped by Burger King on my way in this morning.  There was no way,” he gestured to his brother, swinging the same finger back to his own chest, “Johnny and I were going to split a breakfast of scrambled egg whites, turkey bacon and dry toast and skim milk!”

“Amen!” Johnny added heartily.  He patted his full belly.

Murdoch’s right eye was twitching; not a good thing.  “Scott,” he began, his tone severe.

Fitzgerald laughed.  He handed Murdoch the prescriptions.  “It’s all right, General.”  Eyeing the brothers, he continued.  “It wouldn’t hurt either one of them to put on a few pounds.”

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

The Garrett Enterprises jet had just begun gearing up for take-off; the whine of the engines growing louder as the airplane began to taxi down the runway.  Buckled in, the four passengers were unusually quiet.  Johnny was seated in the chair next to Murdoch, his chin resting on his chest; eyes hidden by the fringe of dark hair that had fallen across his forehead.

Johnny wasn’t one for all the old sayings everyone else loved to bandy about.  But right now the old saw about being between a rock and a hard place seemed pretty damned appropriate.  He shot a furtive glance at his elder brother; sorry now he hadn’t talked to Scott before he just blurted everything out to the Old Man.

He didn’t have to look at Jelly.  Gramps was sitting leaned back in his chair like he didn’t have a care in the world.  Murdoch on the other hand…

Murdoch’s face was like it had been carved out of granite; one more profile up there on Mt. Rushmore staring down at the rest of the world and not too happy with the view.  Johnny looked up long enough to see the Fasten Your Seatbelt light was still on; feeling the plane continue to climb and wishing it would just level off.  “Look, Dad,” he began, the words barely above a whisper.  “It’s just that I still got school,” not a lie, “and you know how important it is to Gramps I get right back.”  He was grateful he was still telling the truth.  “Got to keep that grade average and the attendance up, and all.”  That one was a little hairy.  He knew he needed more.  “I’ve got friends there,” he finished.

That part was a little shady.  Johnny had always been a loner.  He didn’t believe in cliques, preferring to make friends as he found them.  Other than Kevin Jackson, who shared his love for shooting, motorcycles and bronc riding Johnny didn’t give a rat’s ass for the majority of his classmates.  Well, at least the guys.

The real issue, however, was his class attendance and his grades.  He hadn’t even thought much about that; not since coming back from Beijing.  Hell, there was always tomorrow, or next week, or even next semester.  It was just, after a while, he’d simply gotten fed up with all the bullshit: the asshole jocks always bracing him in the hallways, pulling pretend pistols and making like Charlie Prince in 3:10 From Yuma.  Like the kind of shooting he did had anything to do with some dumbass gun fighting!   So he had begun cutting classes, either by himself or hanging out with Kevin up in the hills.

It didn’t hit him, until he heard Murdoch, Scott and Jelly talking about how it was time that Johnny Madrid became Johnny Lancer; and that Johnny Lancer needed to come home.  That’s when Murdoch began talking about transfers and transcripts and he knew he was in deep shit.  He’d been absent enough that those missing days and a shit load of other stuff — along with his slipping grades — were going to show up on his records; and his father would be demanding an explanation.

Murdoch came forward slightly in his chair.  The airplane had leveled out and he unbuckled his belt.  “It’s not going to be pleasant, Johnny,” he said gently.  “The media has been having a field day with everything that happened in South America, and just because Sabinal is a small community, it doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself the center of a great deal of unwanted attention.  You know how it was when you came back from the games.”

Johnny was fiddling with his own seat belt.  “I can handle it,” he said.  “Look.  Can’t we just wait until Spring break?  Figure out what to do then?”

Scott had gotten up from his seat and was heading for the small refrigerator that was bolted down next to the couch.  He opened the door, pulling out a can of Pepsi, a Seven-Up and a bottle of orange juice.  Looking back to where Jelly was now snoozing, he shut the door and returned to where his father and brother were sitting.  He shoved the juice at his brother.  “It’s time to come home, Johnny,” he said softly.  He nodded towards Jelly, the concern evident on his face.  “Jelly told me he’s worried that he can’t keep you safe anymore.  He feels responsible for what happened; that, by allowing you to compete in the Olympics, he opened up the door for Sandoval to seek you out.”  He tapped his brother’s shoulder.  “He isn’t getting any younger, Johnny; and that worries him.  You know he wants you to be safe; maybe even give you the opportunity to get lost in place bigger than where you are now.  Plus, in another year, there’s college,” he ignored his brother’s grimace.  “Maybe it’s time to give Jelly a break; to let him regroup.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  “He told me he’d go along with whatever I decided,” he breathed.   He lifted his eyes to gaze at his brother for a time.  “Murdoch said the same thing, and so did you.  It’s what I want,” he finished.  It wasn’t, really.  Not after his father had finally acknowledged him as his son.  “You tellin’ me you’re going to go back on your word?”  He risked a brief glimpse at his father.

Scott sighed.  “No, little brother.  I’m just asking you to reconsider.”  He leaned back in his chair, looking first at his brother and then his father.  Murdoch remained strangely quiet.  “We agreed we’d give you until spring break,” he said.  “It’s a compromise, one that Jelly suggested.  Are you going to keep your word?”

The younger man nodded.  “Yeah, Scott,” he breathed.  His head dropped, and was chewing on the corner of his bottom lip; his mind going into overdrive.  He hoped that he was going to have enough time to clean up the mess at school; the sudden vision of being chained to his desk with piles of make-up work causing a sudden frown.

Murdoch had just opened his can of Seven Up.  He took a long sip, his gaze settling on his younger son as he pulled the can away from his lips.  He didn’t like one bit what he was seeing in Johnny’s face.  It was clear there was a lot going on in the boy’s mind, and it worried him.  He decided not to pursue his train of thought.  His son had experienced enough turmoil in the last few days.   “All right, son,” he said.  “I gave you my word, and I intend to keep it.”  He finished the last of his soda.  “We are, however, going to have to make arrangements for better security at Jelly’s ranch; an alarm system, at least in the house and around the grounds.  It’s going to take some getting used to, and you’re going to have to accept that.”

Johnny levered himself up from his chair; his face flushing as he remembered a threat his father had made during their Christmas reunion: an escort to and from classes to insure his attendance.  “I ain’t havin’ no fuckin’ babysitter,” he hissed.  He marched across the floor, his back ramrod straight as he headed for the bathroom.

Scott stared after his younger brother.  “What the Hell was that?”

Murdoch smiled; surprised his younger son had actually paid attention to the lecture he had given him.  “He’s remembering that discussion we had at Christmas, about his skipping classes,” he replied.  “I told him if he couldn’t get himself to school and to his classes, I was going to hire someone to make sure he attended.”  The smile grew.  “He actually believed me.”

The blond considered his father’s words.  “Would you have done it, sir?” he asked.  “Hired a…” he grinned across at his father, “…babysitter?”

The big Scot said nothing for a time.  Then, taking a long look at his still sleeping friend — the friend that had worked so hard raise his son, he spoke up.  “In a heartbeat,” he answered.  “Anything to make Jelly’s job easier.”

Scott considered his father’s words.  If it was his own choice, he’d simply hog-tie his brother and carry him back to Lancer.  Now.

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

The ride from the small airport just north of Sabinal was tense.  Gabe Hawkins, Uvalde County’s sheriff had provided the vehicle; a desert tan Hum Vee the county had acquired through a Federal Grant funded by DEA.  Sabinal was considerably inland from the Rio Grande, but the sparsely populated area was an ideal landing spot for the small planes that trafficked drugs from Mexico and points south.  The smaller town had also become a haven of sorts for biker gangs who were avoiding the larger cities, and the area could be rough.

Gabe and Murdoch had engaged in a long discussion about what had occurred at Jelly’s ranch; and also the very public acknowledgement by Murdoch that Johnny was his son.  Murdoch was in the front seat with Gabe.  “I suppose the media has been hounding you about everything that has happened?”

The sheriff laughed.  “About twice the fuss there was when Johnny came home from Beijing.”  He turned his head for a quick look at the General.  “It’s amazing what a couple of six foot four Texas Rangers and some of my boys from the National Guard can do to discourage the persistent jackasses who won’t take no for an answer.

“I did a joint news conference with the bunch from Washington; they issued the usual bullshit about national security, and then we escorted everyone out of town.”  The lawman turned on his left turn signal, although there was no traffic behind him.  “Val Crawford flew in and quietly kicked the shit out of some smart ass from one of those grocery store rags; that pretty much put an end to it.”

Murdoch laughed. “I’ll wager it did!”   Val, like Jelly, had served with him in the past.  The tough, outspoken Texan — after an ill-conceived black-ops assignment that blew out his right ear drum and left him partially deaf with serious wounds that would have killed a lesser man — had reluctantly retired from active service.  By sheer iron will and guts, Crawford had fully recovered, and was still the “go-to” man when his special skills as a sharpshooter were required.  His job as coach for the Olympics shooting team had been, and continued to be, a perfect cover.

The tall Scot looked up into the rear view mirror, grinning a bit as he realized Scott had Johnny involved in an intense string puzzle game; both young men’s fingers flying with the long piece of twine one of them had pilfered from somewhere.  “Is Val still around?” he asked.

Gabe was making a right turn now, onto the road leading down to Jelly’s ranch.  “No.”  He risked another look at the big Scot.  “He isn’t still…?”

Murdoch shook his head, interrupting the man.  “You know I can’t answer that, Gabe.”  He was staring straight ahead now, his face unreadable.

The sheriff fought the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth.  “Well, here we are,” he announced.  He pulled up into the circular driveway; parking at the end of a white crushed gravel walkway.

All four doors opened simultaneously.  There was the subtle crunch of gravel as all five people disembarked; each one’s tread distinctive.  Johnny’s was the lightest, Scott’s almost identical.  Gabe and Murdoch trod the heaviest, and Jelly was somewhere in between.  They all gathered at the driver’s side of the hummer; taking their time as they appraised the house for any sign of damage.

Gabe had moved to the place where Jelly was standing.  “We got good neighbors here, Jelly.  Clive Elvers at State Farm came right in; assessed the damages and chalked it up to a home invasion.  Then we called an emergency meeting at the VFW, and hooked up with those two Mennonite families over in the next county.”  He patted the old man’s back.  “Future Farmers and the Four H came out, too.”  He nodded towards the house.  “So did Adele Jackson and her friends from the Women’s Fellowship at the Congregational Church.”

Jelly was totally speechless.  Other than a recently tarred injury on the trunk of the lone pecan tree in the front yard that shaded one half of the wraparound porch, there was no sign at all of what had occurred.  Not one broken window, not one chip in the clapboard siding that had been riddled with bullets.

Johnny was standing to Gramps’ right.  Like the old man, he was visibly taken aback by what he was seeing.  The snug three bedroom house had been completely restored to its former state.  It was as if nothing had ever happened.  “Damn,” he breathed.

“Jelly!”  The front door of the house opened, and Adele Jackson — a gingham apron fluttering from her fingertips — ran across the porch and down the stairs.   She ran straight into Jelly Hoskins’ now open arms, engulfing the man in a fierce hug.  “Welcome home, Jelly!”  Her next hug was for Johnny; and was just as fierce.

A second woman, a petite little thing in a pale green, well-tailored shirt dress joined Adele.  The Jackson woman reached out, waving the woman forward.  “Angeline.”  She turned back to the men.  “This is Angeline Ferris.  She’s just moved to Sabinal, and she pitched right in to help me make everything just right.”  The older woman smiled at her companion.  “I don’t know what I would have done without her!” she exclaimed.

Mrs. Ferris came forward, offering her hand in turn to Murdoch and then Scott.  She was smiling, and the smile grew as she extended her hand to Jelly.  “Mr. Hoskins,” she greeted.  “Adele has told me so much about you.”  She nodded to Johnny.  “And your grandson.”  She and Jelly were still shaking; a peculiar look on the older man’s face; almost as if wasn’t really surprised to see the woman.

“Ma’am,” Jelly murmured.  Embarrassed, he realized he was still holding on to the woman’s well-turned hand.

Gabe poked Murdoch in the ribs, a sly smile coming.  “Mrs. Ferris has been here with Adele right from the first day,” he beamed, “supervising the clean up.  Fed the work crews like she was passing out sandwiches; putting everything back in order.”  He inhaled.  “She’s one hell of a woman,” he said.  He leaned closer to the big man.  “She’s also a widow.”

Murdoch’s hands were tucked into his front pockets.  He exchanged a long knowing look with his elder son; his right eyebrow arching in mild amusement.  He’d never seen Jelly quite so smitten.  Then his gaze shifted to his younger son.

Johnny’s face was grim, his lower lip disappearing briefly as he stared at the Ferris woman.  It was clear from his face that he didn’t like what he was seeing; the obvious attraction between his Gramps and the dark haired woman. In fact, if looks could kill, the woman would be in her death throes at his feet.  “We gonna stand out here all day, or what?” he growled.

Scott reached out, grabbing his brother’s arm.  “Johnny!” he admonished.

Jelly had cupped Angeline’s left elbow in his right hand and was heading for the front porch.  If he was aware of Johnny’s words or attitude, it didn’t show.  “Well,” he said, “guess it’s time to give it a look,” he breathed.

Murdoch extended his right arm to Adele Jackson.  “Adele,” he smiled.  He and the woman fell in behind Jelly.

Scott turned to Gabe.  “I’d offer you my arm, Gabe, but…”

The lawman punched the younger man’s arm.  He’d known Scott as long as he’d known Murdoch and was familiar with the family’s history.  “You do, son, I’ll knock you on your Boston ass!” he threatened.

Johnny was standing slightly behind Scott.  He elbowed his way past his brother and then seemed to change his mind, turning to head for the barn.  Jelly, who was now standing on the porch at the open door, called out to him.  “Johnny!”  Perplexed, he turned back to the others.  “Now what in tarnation do you think’s got into that boy!?”

Scott was already following in his sibling’s wake.  His stride longer than his brother’s, he quickly caught up with the younger man and pulled him to heel.  “House,” he said quietly.  “Whatever you’re so anxious to see in the barn will still be there after you’ve been inside the house.”

Adele Jackson was still standing at the threshold with Murdoch.  “It’s all right, Jelly,” she soothed gently.  “He’s just like Kevin.  I imagine he’s still overwhelmed by everything that happened, and then coming home to a pair of fussing females…”  Brightening, she nodded toward the still open door.   “Angeline and I have prepared a lovely meal,” she announced.  “I’m sure once Johnny’s eaten, he’ll be fine; just fine.”  It was amazing what a hot meal topped off with a dessert could do to improve a teen-aged boy’s moody disposition.

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

Johnny was not fine.  He sat in his usual place at the table, Scott sitting at his left; his father directly across from him.  Gabe and Adele were seated next to Murdoch.  Jelly was at the head of the table, and Angeline — at Jelly’s insistence — was at the foot.

The women had created a veritable feast.  A large buffet type steamer was at the center of the table; the three compartments full to the brim.  They had prepared beef shorts ribs, parsleyed new potatoes; and a vegetable blend simmering in a rich cheese sauce.  A large bowl of tossed salad rested in a shallow tin of chipped ice.  Everything had been done to perfection.

Jelly was playing the perfect host.  The pride was evident in his face as he topped off Murdoch’s glass of wine.  “Adele said Angeline has made cake,” he announced.  “Black Forest with red cherries and whipped cream.   From scratch!”

Scott was working his way through his first portion of ribs.  The sauce was more sweet than tangy; hickory flavored with honey and brown sugar.  “I have to say, ladies,” he began, “you’d do quite well if you ever decided to open a restaurant in Kansas City.  These ribs are excellent.”

Johnny’s food remained untouched.  He leaned back in his chair, his arms folded tightly across his chest.  There was no way in hell he was going to eat.  He had no problem with Adele Jackson being there — hell, she was Kevin’s Mom and he’d eaten plenty of meals at her table — and she always made a point of coming by on Jelly’s birthday with fried chicken to, in her words, give him a day off.

The Ferris woman was a different matter.  He’d been keeping an eye on her, ever since — unseen — he had caught his Gramps and the woman having lunch out at the TA Truck Stop.   They’d been seeing each other for more than a month now, keeping the relationship secret.  Johnny knew the woman had been at the ranch on at least one occasion when he was supposed to be at school, and he wondered if it happened more than once.  Right now, she was doing a pretty good job of making herself right at home.  It didn’t help that his Gramps was practically falling over his own feet fawning over the woman.

Murdoch voice cut into the younger man’s dark reverie.  “Johnny.”  He gestured towards his son’s plate with his fork.  “You need to eat, son,” he said gently.

“Not hungry,” the boy snapped.  He sank further down in his chair.

Jelly was just about to take another sip of wine.  He sensed he was in an awkward position; about to correct the younger man with the boy’s father present.  Still, this was his house, and his table; and Johnny was behaving like a spoiled two year old.  “Then there’s no point in you bein’ here at the table,” he groused.  “Might be just as well if you went on up to your room.”

Johnny shoved back his chair and stood up; not giving a damn when the chair tipped over and crashed to the floor.  “Fine by me,” he shot back.  He bolted from the room and headed for the stairs.

Scott dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin.  He started to push back his chair, only to find himself stopped mid push by his father’s stern voice.

Murdoch had shoved himself away from the table.  “I don’t want you running interference this time, Scott,” he said.  He nodded in turn to the two women.  “If you’ll excuse me.”

The blond reached out and picked up his brother’s chair, pushing it back into place.  There was an awkward silence, the only sound now the heavy thump of his father’s feet as the older man headed up the stairs.

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

Johnny slammed open the door to his bedroom, intending to back-kick the door shut as he stepped across the threshold.  Instead of the satisfying bang of wood against wood, he was surprised to hear nothing.  He turned to find his father looming large and angry in the doorway; his right palm resting solidly against the door.

Murdoch stepped into the room, easing the door shut.  He stood for a time, surveying a world that was very familiar, yet somehow strange.  He’d taken special care — after he had relinquished custody to Jelly and Harlan Garrett — that both Johnny and Scott’s rooms at Lancer duplicated the bedrooms in the homes where they had been raised; right down to the furnishings.   Recovering, he glared at his youngest.  “Sit,” he commanded, pointing to the bed.

Knowing it was useless to resist, Johnny did as he was told.  His eyes were busy looking everywhere except at his father.  “She was in here!” he ground out.  He gestured towards his desk, his dresser.  The entire room had been cleaned; new draperies on the windows, a solid colored spread on his bed where there had once been a multicolored quilt; one of the few things salvaged from his brief childhood at Lancer.  A shiver coursed through his lean frame; a deep resentment forming at the pit of his belly.  “She went through my stuff.”  This time he looked up at his father.  “What right…?”

Hands clasped behind his back, Murdoch had begun to pace.  A private person, the older man understood his son’s anger at being intruded upon, but it didn’t excuse the youth’s behavior.  “Mrs. Ferris and Mrs. Jackson were both in here, along with the other women from town.  I’m sure they felt they were helping,” he began, “that they were looking after Jelly’s interests; and, in doing so, felt they should put everything — including your room — back in order.

“You said yourself; Sandoval’s men came from the upstairs when they attacked the house,” he reasoned.

Johnny snorted.  “She’s a bitch, Murdoch!”  Imploringly, he looked up at his father.  “They’ve been seein’ each other on the sly,” he said.  “More’n a month now, and pretendin’ like nothin’s goin’ on!  She’s got Gramps all worked up, actin’ like an old fool…”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed and he stopped pacing to face his son fully.  “You are in no position to make that judgment,” he snapped.  “Jelly’s a grown man, entitled to choose his own friends.”  When he saw the argument forming, he raised his hand.  “Jelly and I agreed we would let you make the decision about returning here, or coming home with Scott and me to Lancer.  You,” he pointed a long finger at his son, “made the choice to come back to Sabinal, to stay here and finish this semester.  That means you will live by Jelly’s rules, you will — if it continues — accept his friendship with Mrs. Ferris, and you will mind your manners.

“You made the commitment, John, and you are going to honor it.”  

The younger man was perched on the edge of his bed, his fingers knotted in the thick comforter.  “I don’t like her,” he murmured.  “I hate her!!”

Murdoch was surprised by the vehemence in his son’s words, but decided to dismiss them.  “Apparently, what’s happening is that you don’t want to share,” he scolded.  “For the past sixteen years, you’ve had Jelly’s total and complete devotion.  I think you are just having a problem dealing with some potential competition.”

Johnny’s head snapped up; a defiant pout forming. “Jesus Fuckin’ H. Christ!” he shouted.  “I don’t care what you think!  I don’t want her here!  Me’n Gramps are fine just like we are!!”   Realizing he had just affirmed what his father was saying, he immediately dropped his chin against his chest; his gaze dropping to the floor.

The temperature in the room suddenly seemed to rise into the triple digits.  Murdoch’s face flamed a deep red, the vein in his right temple beginning to throb.  “This is what you are going to do, John,” he said, the words whisper soft.  He began counting off with the fingers of his right hand.  “One.  You are going to apologize to Jelly for your disrespect.  Two,” the second finger raised, “you are going to apologize to Mrs. Ferris and Mrs. Jackson for your rudeness.  Three.  You are going to spend the next few weeks giving some serious consideration to everything Dr. Fitzgerald told you about eating regular meals and taking your medicine.  Four.  You are going to clean up that mouth!”  He took a deep breath and moved to the bedside table, picking up the small radio alarm clock, hesitating a heart-beat as he watched the LCD digits advanced from 5:54 to 5:55.  “Five minutes,” he announced. “You have five minutes to get yourself together and come down stairs.”

Stubbornly, the young man shook his head.  “Gramps said I had to stay in my room.”

Murdoch put down the clock.  “Don’t play with me, son.  I’m not in the mood.”

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

The antique clock on the mantle chimed for the final time, the muted dong fading just as Johnny reached the bottom of the stairs.  Squaring his shoulders, he stepped into the living room.  “Gramps,” he greeted.

The six adults looked up.  Gabe rose up from the arm chair, carefully putting his cup and saucer down on the coffee table.  “If you ladies will excuse me,” he said.  “I could use a smoke.”  Digging into his shirt pocket, he took out a pack of Marlboro’s and headed for the front door.

Scott levered himself up from the couch.  “I think I’ll join Gabe,” he said.  He strode out of the room, never breaking stride as he patted his brother’s shoulder on the way by.  Johnny leaned into his brother’s brief touch, silently wishing he would stay.  Adele Jackson discreetly headed for the kitchen when Murdoch stopped her and gently led her back to her seat.

Jelly was still seated.  He was in his favorite chair; the leather upholstered, horse-hair stuffed Morris chair he had inherited, along with the small ranch, from his paternal grandfather.  “You have something you want to say to me, boy?” he asked.

Johnny remained standing where he was, looking like he was debating making a run for it; hands clasped firmly behind his back.  He sucked up, his eyelids fluttering as he tried to meet Jelly’s steady scrutiny.  It wasn’t easy; and it didn’t help that Angeline Ferris was perched on the matching footstool like some damned lap dog, directly in front of the man.  “I’m sorry, Gramps,” he said.  “About the way I behaved when we got home; and at the table.”

Jelly nodded.  “You been taught better,” he chided.

Swallowing, Johnny nodded.  “Yes, sir.  I know.”

Murdoch was standing at the fireplace, his right arm resting on the mantle.  “There’s something you need to say to the ladies, Johnny,” he prompted.

Johnny’s posture immediately changed.  His head came forward, his chin resting briefly on his chest as he collected himself.  Instinctively, he unclasped his hands, his arms shifting to his front as he wrapped himself into a tight self hug.  This one, he knew, was actually going to hurt.  At least where the Ferris woman was concerned.  “Sorry Mrs. Jackson,” he muttered.

It didn’t escape Murdoch’s notice that his son had not apologized to the other woman.  “John,” he prodded firmly.

There was a subtle rustling as Angeline straightened her already immaculate skirt and stood up.  “If you gentleman don’t mind,” she smiled.  She turned to face Murdoch.  “I raised my two younger brothers, Murdoch.  I know how difficult it can be for teen-aged boys.”  The smile grew.  “Perhaps if Johnny and I had some privacy?”

The request was clearly a surprise to both men.  Jelly started to protest, only to have the woman press her fingertips gently against his lips.  “Really, Jelly.  At least let me try.”

Jelly stood up.  He stared across the room to where Murdoch was standing; shrugging his shoulders and nodding towards the front porch.  “Maybe Scott and Gabe would like some company,” he said.  Adele Jackson had once again picked up her cup.  This time no one stopped her as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Murdoch’s gaze shifted to his son.  Johnny looked miserable; deservedly so.  “All right, Jelly,” he agreed.  He followed the older man out of the room.

Johnny watched apprehensively as the woman approached him.  The temptation to reach out and strangle her was overwhelming.  Instead, he hugged himself even tighter.

“I think, Johnny,” the woman crowed, “we should come to an understanding.”

She was closer to him now; so close he could feel her breath against his cheek.  “Is that right?” he challenged.

“It is unless you want your father and your Grandfather to find out that you’ve been skipping school and spending your time racing your motorcycle up in the hills,” she answered; “when you aren’t stalking…” she smiled when she said the word, letting the implication sink in, “…me.

“One telephone call to the high school, or perhaps the sheriff…” she patted his cheek.   “I like your Grandfather, Johnny.  I’ve heard so much about him since I came here to Sabinal.  Not only about how proud he is of your accomplishments, but of how active he is in the community.”  It was true.  Everyone in Uvalde County held Jelly Hoskins in high regard.  “Quite frankly, I find him very attractive.  I plan on continuing to see him, if that’s what he wants.”  She smiled.  “Of course, that might become difficult if he has to spend all his time dealing with your bad behavior.”

The young man inhaled; sharply.  Jelly wasn’t what would be considered a wealthy man, but the title to his land was clear, and — with his pension, the yearly stipend from Murdoch and the profit from ranching — he was certainly solid.  You bitch, he thought.  Aloud, he said, “And if I stop skippin’ school,” he asked.  He purposely neglected saying anything about watching her.

“I’ll keep your little secret.”  Again, she touched his cheek and felt him recoil.  The smile slipped to be replaced by a cold frown.  “And there will be no silly interference if your Grandfather and I continue to be friends.  Understood?”

Johnny’s jaws tensed; so hard it made his teeth hurt.  “Understood,” he echoed.

The smile returned; her eyes lighting in victory.  “Shall we go outside?” she asked, taking his arm.

He felt as if he had been grasped by a coiling python.  His belly on fire, he allowed the woman to lead him outside.

Four sets of eyes turned to greet them as they stepped out onto the porch.  Angeline was beaming.  “Everything is fine,” she announced.  “Johnny made a very eloquent apology, and he’s promised it won’t happen again.”  She canted her head, looking directly at the younger man.  “Isn’t that right, Johnny?” she asked sweetly.

He nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.”  Biting his lip, he turned to his father.  “Feelin’ kind of tired,” he said.  He forced a smile.  “Long trip.  Thought maybe I’d just turn in.”

Murdoch eyed his son; immediately aware that the boy was having trouble meeting his gaze.  “Gabe will be taking us back to the airport, son.”  There was so much more he wanted to say.

Scott reached out to take his brother’s arm.  “I’d like to have a few words with you before we leave, Johnny.  Upstairs?”

Relieved, the younger man nodded.  “Yeah.”  He turned to face his father.  “Murdoch?”  Hesitantly, he allowed himself to be pulled into a fierce, back-thumping hug.  Abruptly, he pulled away, heading back into the house; Scott right behind him.

Murdoch watched as his sons departed.  Gesturing to Jelly, he pulled the older man aside.  “Jelly, if you feel that Johnny being here is going to cause you any grief,” he began.

Jelly shook his head.  “The boy just needs time,” he said.  “Besides, he made the decision to come back here for the rest of the semester.  Wouldn’t be doin’ him any favors if we let him back out.”  He was quiet a moment.  “I need the time, too, Murdoch.”  He raised his hand when his old friend started to speak.  “I know he needs to go home to Lancer,” he said.  “Don’t make it any easier, knowin’ that; but it needs to be.”

Murdoch reached out, laying his hand on the gunny’s shoulder.  “You’ll always be his Gramps, Jelly,” he cajoled.

The older man laughed.  “Hell, I know that!”  He smiled and nodded in the direction of Gabe and the woman.  “She’s something, ain’t she?” he asked quietly.

The tall Scot followed his gaze.  Jelly had been married once; long before Johnny had come into the picture.  The woman’s name had been Mei Ling, and she had died in the Hell called Saigon.  Through all the years since, Jelly had remained faithful to that memory.  It was, Murdoch realized, time for the old man to let go of the past, and to finally move on.  

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

Scott followed his brother into the bedroom.  “Whoa,” he breathed, surveying the changes.  He had visited Johnny at Jelly’s several times throughout the years, including quick in and out trips that even their father had not always known about; and Johnny’s room had always looked as if it had been directly in the path of a full-out Texas tornado.  “It looks like Mr. Clean invaded your room,” he said.

Johnny had plopped down onto the bed.  “Mrs. Clean,” he muttered.  He stretched out, his hands knotted behind his head.

The blond moved to the side of the bed, shoving his brother’s legs a bit to make room as he sat down.  He nodded to the computer on the too neat desk.  “The satellite service Grandfather provided.  Is it working?”

“Better than the fuckin’ dial up,” Johnny answered.  “Sorry.”

Scott chuckled.  “Is that a Texas word, little brother?  You used it quite a lot when you were ill.”

In spite of his mood, Johnny laughed.  “Nope.”  He shrugged.  “Been hangin’ out with the big boys,” he joshed.  It was the truth, but he wasn’t about to elaborate.  He lifted his head slightly.  “A bunch of those guys from the junior ROTC,” he teased.

“Must be army,” Scott shot back.  “Johnny, about Jelly and Mrs. Ferris.”  Only a fool would have failed to recognize the immediate and mutual attraction.

Johnny’s mood abruptly changed.  “Don’t want to talk about her, Scott.”

The older man nodded.  He had sensed Johnny’s intense dislike of the woman and knew, in spite of the apparent truce, those feelings hadn’t changed.  “Well, when you do want to talk,” he said, “call me.  Anytime, brother.”  He tapped Johnny’s flat belly with the back of his hand.  “It isn’t that long until spring break.  Maybe things will be sorted out by then, and if they aren’t…”  He shrugged.

There was a soft rush of air as Johnny sighed.  “What’s it like?” he asked.   “Livin’ with the General?”

“Not as bad as you might think,” Scott answered, the smile extending to his eyes.  “Once you get past the shouting.”  He grabbed his brother’s hand and, elbow to elbow, gave it a firm shake.  “Be good,” he ordered.

Johnny yawned.  He really did feel tired.  “No problema,” he breathed.  In an instant, he was asleep.

Scott levered himself up from the bed.  “So much for prolonged, emotional goodbyes,” he laughed.

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

Johnny never heard the hummer leave.  He catnapped for a time, and then, as the moon rose; got up from his bed.  The first thing he did was lock his bedroom door.  The next order of business was the internet.

He flicked on the laptop, watching as the Windows screen came up and the icons began appearing on his desktop.  Grateful for his own stubbornness about having one private place in his small universe, he tapped in his password.  In no time, he was on the internet.

It took him less than twenty minutes to crack the idiotically simple alpha-numeric password to the mainframe at the Sabinal School District’s main office — who the hell was stupid enough to think the name of the school mascot plus 01 was a good idea? — and even less time to hack into his school records.  Almost giddy with excitement, he began to amend everything from his attendance to his GPA.  And then, inserting a sheet of thick, adhesive label paper into the inkjet, just for fun, he issued himself a prepaid parking permit for the Harley; in the private administrative lot.

Job done, he turned his attention elsewhere.  With no other light in the room but the bright glow from his LCD monitor, he tapped away; only occasionally checking the time on the bottom right hand side of the screen.  He didn’t care how long it took.  There was no way in Hell the Ferris bitch was going to create problems for him; not now, not ever.  Just as there was no way in Hell he was not going to check her out.

It was close to five a.m. when he finally gave up.  Clicking on his browser bar, he scrolled the long list of sites he had visited, mentally checking them off.   He’d found ticklers on one or two of the free search sites, but they had been fairly benign; and when he’d tried digging deeper, using the Wells-Fargo credit card his father had provided for him when he started High School, he had even less success.  For some reason he didn’t quite understand, the pin number he supplied was rejected.

Well, he at least had a telephone number and address for her that seemed pretty recent; an apartment in El Paso.  He didn’t know how, or when — it was a five hundred mile trip one way — but he would check it out.   And soon. 

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

Johnny was sprawled on his stomach, his head buried beneath his pillow; his bare left leg dangling off the bed.   As usual, his blankets were in a tangle, the top sheet pulled free from the mattress at the foot of the bed; the navy blue quilt bunched around his butt.  His tanned shoulders and back were totally bare, and he was completely still.

The digital clock radio beside his bed had just flicked to the 5:00 mark, and the light began to pulse; the alarm triggering and starting to beep.  It was a faint chirping at first; the volume rising as noise continued.  The rhythm remained constant, the beeping becoming more intense; shriller.  Suddenly, the young man’s arm snaked out from beneath the pillow, the fingers of his left hand groping for the off button but with little success.

Sighing, the youth raised slightly up off the bed; frowning as the loud beep became more incessant.  Shaking his head, he forced his eyes open and turned over, pushing himself up into a sitting position.  He picked up the clock in both hands; pressed the off button, and then stared for a time at the bright red numerals.  Feeling a need to scratch, he put the clock back down.

Johnny hated mornings.  For as long as he could remember, he had always been at war with the sun; hating the way it intruded uninvited into his room.   He raked his fingers through his hair; stealing a glance at the multi-paned window.  Already, beyond the slightly parted curtains, a faint glow was spreading across the eastern horizon; the false promise of rain painting the sky red.

“Shit,” he cursed.  He picked his second pillow up off the floor; punched it into shape and put it with the other.  The temptation to crawl back beneath the covers still clawed at him, but he knew he couldn’t yield.  Still, he leaned back against the soft down pillows, drawing his knees up to his chest; the blankets still wrapped around his middle.

It took a little time to get his mind and his body to come together.  Already, he was fidgeting; his fingers busy picking at an annoying piece of thread on the store-bought comforter.  The stubborn strand of commercial grade thread was a stark reminder of the unwanted alterations that had occurred in his room: the changes that had been made during the clean-up after the kidnapping.   Almost everything was new — the bedding, the matching curtains, the bedside rug — and he hated it.  His quiet anger was enough to cause him to tug even harder at the machined edging on the quilt, and before he realized what was happening, he began unraveling the chain stitching.  He stopped just short of pulling the threads completely apart at the corner, swiftly knotting the string before he did any real damage.

He’d been home now just two weeks; a long two weeks.  In some ways, it felt like years instead of days.  It had taken a great deal of restraint on his part not to buck against the traces.  Instead, he had worked hard at being good: taking his medicine, putting up with the pain-in-the ass trip to the doctor for his checkup, another to have the stitches removed.  Hell, he didn’t even complain anymore — at least not to his Gramps — about how much he resented the who and why of what had occurred in his little corner of the world.

Sandoval had been bad enough; but the Ferris woman, and the way she had intruded into his life…  That had been the real Hell; the “welcome home” dinner, his having to kiss the woman’s ass to keep the peace.

He looked around the room again.  Sure, Kevin’s Mom had had a hand in the work that had been done, but he was gut-sure it was the Ferris woman who had dictated the choice of colors and linens that now dominated his bedroom. Blue.  Everything was fucking blue, plain blue; and it all matched.   His room looked like some picture out of a creepy woman’s magazine; Good Housekeeping or something.  Jeez!  The thought made him shudder.

Fucking bitch, he thought bitterly.  He snorted.  At least his Gramps wasn’t talking about the woman anymore, and with any luck that was the end of it.  He hoped so.  Maybe it was true.  When he had scoped out the truck stop where she had been waitressing, the morning cook had told him she was long gone.  Good Riddance.

Stretching, he yawned; his blood rising as he saw the time: it was already 5:15.  Shit!  He really had to get a move on now.  It was the first Friday of the month.  Bank day, he mused; the one day when his Gramps made a big deal about going into town.  The one day when the old man insisted Johnny ride with him into Sabinal.

Bank day was always a big deal for Jelly; the day he went into town to make sure his pension check had been deposited in his account.  He’d crank up the bronze colored Dodge RAM, pull up to the front gate, honk, and then holler for Johnny to get his butt out of the house and into the truck.  And then they would make the twenty mile ride into town.  Despite Johnny’s loud protests, Jelly would drive right up to the front door of the High School and drop him off; with stern orders to meet him in the same place at promptly 3:30.  And none of your lollygagging, boy.  I want you at that front door waitin’.  You don’t want me to come lookin’…

That was true enough, Johnny reflected.  He had lost track of time the last trip they’d made, and Jelly had come storming through the hallways, bellowing like a cow looking for her stray calf.  His classmates had a high old time with that one.  It took him weeks to live it down, his Gramps catching him and his bud Kevin Jackson sneaking a smoke beneath the bleachers.  You’d have thought they’d been passing around a joint the way his Gramps had dressed him down; he remembered, and the lecture had continued all the way home.

Well, it wasn’t going to happen again.  Nope.  He hadn’t gotten himself up an hour early to be carted off to school like some first-grader.  Grinning, he tossed aside his blankets, pivoted off the bed, and stood up.

He was buck naked.  Winter, summer; it didn’t matter.  He’d just crank up the heat, or turn on the air.  Totally unashamed of his nakedness, he crossed the room and began rummaging around in his dresser.  White socks, blue Hanes boxers.  His Levis were neatly folded and stacked on the shelf in the armoire, just below the tee shirts.

He dressed with purpose and speed, going to the closet for a clean shirt.  Suppressing a smile, he raked the orderly white plastic hangers aside until he found the one he wanted: the red, hand-embroidered shirt Scott had sent him from Spain last summer.  He didn’t care how much his male classmates teased him about the color or the style, the elaborate embroidery; the girls at the school liked it, and he spent a fair amount of time in front of his locker allowing them to finger the hand stitching and straighten his collar.  Even in class, the girls that sat behind him were always fiddling with the collar, putting it right.

A couple of them even played with his hair.

Feeling a sudden itch he wouldn’t dare scratch in public, he shook the thoughts away.  Concentrate, he told himself.  Take care of business.

Going to the side of his bed, he dropped down to his knees and swept his arm across the floor beneath the bed in search of his boots.  The location of his boots was always an enigma to him; kind of like the other great mysteries in his life: why beds came in different sizes or why anybody would eat vanilla ice cream.  It seemed like no matter where he took off his boots, at least one of them ended up just out of his reach.  He dropped down to his belly; grunting when he finally located the missing boot.

He was going to have to wait until he got outside to put them on.   Gramps would hear him for sure if he tried sneaking down the stairs wearing his shit-kickers.

Standing up, he tucked the boots under his left arm, and headed for the door.  He’d learned early on to keep the hinges on his door lubricated; even going so far as to keep a pressurized can of WD40 stashed on his bookcase.  Smiling, he eased the door open.  Jelly’s bedroom was on the first floor, just off the living room, and directly below the upper hallway.

He tiptoed down the stairs.  The Harley was parked in the barn; he’d have to push it away from the house before he cranked up, but that wasn’t any problem.  There would be Hell to pay when he got home tonight: his Gramps would holler a bit, maybe even threaten to ground him; but by the time the week-end was over, it would all be forgotten.  Yep.  Life was good.

He made it to the bottom of the stairs; biting his lower lip in an attempt to stop the laughter.  He wasn’t quite sure why, but there was always an element of pee-your-pants excitement in sneaking out of the house.  It was something that had started after he’d gotten his license and his motorcycle; a hell of a lot more fun than taking off in his Gramps’ truck.

Tip-toeing across the bare plank floor, he stealthily headed for the front hallway.  Reaching out, he grabbed hold of the doorknob.

“And just where the Hell do you think you’re goin’, boy?”

Johnny exhaled.  He hadn’t even realized he had been holding his breath.  When he turned around, he could just make out the wiry form of his guardian, the old man just coming out of his bedroom door.  “Outhouse?” he croaked.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Jelly was fastening the cord on his bathrobe.  He reached out, turning on the lamp that stood on a small table next to his bedroom door.  The light spread; the old man’s face bathed by the small circle of light that radiated up from the top of the lampshade.  He was frowning.  “Ain’t had no storm,” he ground out; “power’s on.  Which means the pump is runnin’ and the bathroom’s workin’ just fine.”

The boy slunk back into the living room.  “Look, Gramps,” he began.

Snort.  Jelly headed towards the kitchen.  “‘Look, Gramps’, my ass,” he fumed.  He shook his finger at the youth.  “Bank day,” he said.  “You ride with me into town, just like always.”

Johnny’s mouth turned down in a petulant pout.  “Come on, Gramps,” he pleaded.   He followed behind the man.  “I ride in with you, the guys rag on me for a week!  Geez!!  It’s like bein’ a fu…” he caught himself, just in time, “…like bein’ a first grader.”

Jelly was at the Hotpoint stove, pulling down a frying pan from the collection of pots that hung from the hooks above the burners.  There was a click, click, click as the older man turned the far right-hand knob on the front panel and the electric starter sparked.  “No,” he said, adjusting the flame.  “Bein’ like a first grader would be me takin’ your butt down to the crossroads and puttin’ you on the bus.”  His meaning clear, he went to the fridge and began pulling out the butter, eggs, bacon and cheese.  “You try sneakin’ out of the house again, that just might be happenin’.”

The younger man cursed.  “Shit!”  He slumped into a chair at the table and began pulling on his boots.

There was a sudden sizzle as Jelly plopped a slab of bacon strips into the hot pan, and he separated the slices with a spatula.  He began cracking eggs into a small bowl; using a whisk when he turned to face the youth.  “We’ve been doin’ bank day since you were a tadpole,” he intoned, “and we’re gonna keep doin’ it ‘til I say otherwise.”

Johnny stamped his right foot; tugging at the vamp as he pulled the boot into place.  “I got my cycle, and I got a license,” he argued.

“You keep usin’ that tone with me, boy, and you’re goin’ to find that bike chained to a twelve by twelve upright in the barn,” the older man snapped.   “I got business in town, and there’s no point in both of us burnin’ gas.  Now set the table.”

It was, Johnny knew, pointless to quarrel with his Gramps when the older man had made up his mind.  He pushed up from the chair and started collecting plates.

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

Johnny sulked all the way into town.  He stared out at the landscape, watching as the houses started coming with more regularity.  Once they hit the main road heading into Sabinal, his mood worsened.  “You can let me out here,” he said, nodding at the first intersection.  “I can walk.”

Jelly shook his head.  “Nope,” he said.  He flicked on the right turn signal, easing the big truck around the corner.  Two blocks down the road, he pulled a sharp left into the concrete driveway.  He pulled up in front of the wide walkway leading right up to the front door.  “Don’t forget your books,” he ordered.

The young man scooped up the stack of text books from the floor; swearing softly as he realized he had left the forged excused absence note on his computer desk next to his ink-jet printer.

“Forget somethin’?” Jelly asked, clearly annoyed.

Johnny shook his head.  “Nope.”  He risked a quick glance at his guardian.  “I can meet you at the bank,” he declared.

Jelly frowned.  “You’ll meet me right here,” he said, pointing down at the floor board.  “Three thirty.”

The younger man grimaced.  Saying nothing, he opened the door and stepped down.  He was shaking his head.  Two of the jocks from the football team were standing just under the front portico; and behind them, just opening one side of the large double door, was the vice principal.  Today was going to be shit; pure shit.  He slammed the truck door shut.

He stood for a time, until he was certain his Gramps had pulled out, and then stomped toward the front door.

Hal Ingram stepped back, opening the door wider and allowing the youth to pass.  A tall, lean man in his late thirties with sandy blond hair and green eyes, he functioned as assistant principal and football coach.  He also taught Civics.  “How nice of you to honor us with your presence, Mr. Madrid,” the big man smiled good-naturedly.  He held out his hand.  “I take it you have the signed excuse slip from your Grandfather?”

Johnny closed his eyes briefly.  When he opened them, Ingram was still standing beside him.  “No, sir,” he answered.  “Forgot to grab it off the truck seat.”

Ingram shook his head.  A transplant from San Antonio, he had taken the job in Sabinal because he and his wife wanted to raise their three children in a smaller community; a place far away from the hustle of the larger city.  Somewhere quiet, he mused.  But that had changed after Johnny Madrid had won his gold at the Olympics and the recent kidnapping.  It didn’t help that the young man was not only a bit full of himself right now and somehow convinced he was invincible; he seemed to be downright bored.  And — although he was extremely bright — not particularly interested in school.  “My office,” he ordered.   As much as he liked the personable youth, he wasn’t about to put up with his nonsense. “Now.”

Grinning, Johnny fell in behind the older man and followed him down the corridor.  He knew what was coming: a lecture about his attendance, his classroom participation and his late homework.

And then Ingram would give him a letter to hand deliver to his Gramps.  How dumb was that? he thought.  Made about as much sense as suspending someone who didn’t want to be in school in the first place.

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

Jelly Hoskins exited the bank, a copy of his deposit slip and some folding money clenched firmly in his hand.  He paused for a moment, recounting the greenbacks before taking his wallet out of his back pocket and placing the cash and slip of paper inside.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust this electronic deposit thing, or even thought for a moment the government might slip up and send his money to the wrong place; it was just that it was better to be safe than sorry.

Taking a moment to look up and down the street, he debated his next move.  He’d made a list of supplies he needed, canned goods and such to take up the slack until his garden was put in.  He patted his shirt pocket, checking to make sure the notepad was there.

Of course, there were things Johnny needed, too.  Socks, for instance.  Heaven only knew what his boy did with his socks.  He quit years ago, buying anything in colors or patterns, purchasing nothing but white socks that didn’t have to be matched up.  Still, when wash day came; Johnny never managed to come up with an even number of socks.   The bottom of the wash basket would be littered with seven, nine, eleven stockings; Johnny arguing he’d brought down everything from his room.

Except, of course, those strays that ended up tangled among his sheets or the underwear that had been kicked under his bed.

The old man chuckled.  It was an on-going battle.

He took care of business with his usual military precision; loading the last of his purchases into the back of the truck.  Normally, his next scheduled task would be a long lunch at the VFW and a few hands of euchre or pinochle with his fellow retirees.  Today, however would be different.  Checking his watch, he stood stock still for a time, his right foot tapping as he considered what he was about to do.  A small frown formed as he mentally scolded himself.  Hell, he thought, it ain’t as though I’m actually deceivin’ the boy.  Promised him we weren’t goin’ to talk about Angeline anymore; or her comin’ out to the ranch, and I’ve kept my word.  Besides, I’m the grownup here, and I don’t need to be explainin’ myself to a still wet-behind-the-ears teenager!

His mind made up, Jelly headed up the walkway.  Ahead of him was the place he had already begun to think of as his home-away-from-home.  The small shop, which had once been a Mom and Pop bakery, had been completely renovated: the large plate glass windows bright and clean, red and white checkered curtains bordering the top, short café-style curtains decorating the lower half.  Curving across the midsection in gold leaf bordered by shiny black paint was the word:


And beneath that, in block letters: HOME COOKING & FRESH PIES.

The small silver bell atop the door jingled as Jelly opened the door and stuck his head inside.  A twelve foot counter with red swivel stools separated the room from the refrigerated display cases the stood against the back walls.  Flanking the counter was another smaller display case; this one stacked with doily covered plates piled with fresh cookies and brownies.

Jelly stepped through the door.  The room was big enough that there were three large booths on the side wall; and on the opposite side — the side to the left of the door — were an assortment of family-sized tables.  Red and white checkered tablecloths; string-embossed with contrasting clover leafs at the center of each colored square, were spread across the table tops.

The walls were painted a soft white.  A wide decorative shelf with bas-relief scrolling ran shoulder high around the sides and back wall.  Atop the shelf were delicately rendered ceramic figurines of angels and cherubs, not one mote of dust on any piece.  What Jelly really liked about the place was that is was just a tad bit old fashioned.

“Jelly!”  Gabe Hawkins was seated in the first booth.  He waved to his old friend, gesturing for the man to join him.

Jelly slipped into the padded, red vinyl bench, smiling as he spied the empty burger and fries basket; a wide slab of lemon meringue pie sitting directly in front of the lawman.  “So what do you think, Gabe?” the old gunny asked.

The lawman snorted.  “I think you’re a sly old fox,” he answered; a forkful of pie hovering near his mouth.  Like everyone else in Sabinal, he had been totally surprised by the old veteran’s romance with the former truck stop waitress.  He tapped the aluminum cream container that was resting in a bowl of crushed ice with his now empty fork.  “The fresh cream your idea?”

Jelly was fighting to resist the urge to reach out and snatch a piece of the two inch thick meringue from his friend’s pie.  “My idea, my cows,” he bragged.  “Hector’s boy, Jesse, brings it into town fresh on Monday mornins’.”  He looked up, smiling as the woman approached the table.

“And what would you like, sir?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.

The old gunny looked up into the hazel eyes, his cheeks flushing.  “Was that rhubarb-strawberry pie I smelled when I came in?” he asked.

The woman’s smile widened.  Her dark hair was pulled back; framing her heart-shaped face and cascading down her back just below her shoulders, two perfectly formed curls cupping her ears.  She tilted her head slightly, the smile growing to display a perfect set of teeth.  “Fresh out of the oven, and still warm,” she answered, the words coming softly.

Jelly’s fingers were toying with the cloth napkin.  “Then I reckon I’ll just have to have a piece,” he murmured.  The blush deepened as he realized Gabe was watching him and had taken the statement as innuendo. 

Again, the woman smiled.  She knew that strawberry-rhubarb was Jelly’s favorite; something she had learned when he had become a regular customer at the TA Truck Stop.  “One slice, coming up.”  She leaned in a bit closer, as if she were about to tell the man a secret.  “I have homemade vanilla ice cream to go with that pie, Mr. Hoskins.  Or fresh whipped cream.”

Jelly reached out to pat the woman’s hand; not giving a damned that the lawman was watching.  “Ice cream,” he said, “and a cup of coffee, please.”

Gabe waited until the woman left the table to speak.  “Sly old fox,” he teased, repeating himself.  “So how long has this been goin’ on?” he asked, his eyes narrowing when Jelly just shrugged.  Unlike women, men didn’t gossip; they simply shared information.  With a clear conscience, he picked up his cup, taking a sip of his coffee; and then gesturing towards their surroundings.  “I heard she did most of this herself.  Salvaged the equipment from the old bakery, did the painting.”  He shook his head.  “Worked just as hard as she did out at your place.”  The lawman finished his coffee.  His pie was already gone; including the crust.  “She told me she’s going to start serving full meals come Monday.”

The older man nodded.  “Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”  He puffed up a bit, filled with a sudden burst of pride.  “Goin’ to turn this into a real money maker,” he announced.  What he neglected to tell his friend was that it was his money that had bankrolled the operation.   Not that it was any of Gabe’s business; or anyone else’s for that matter.  Nope.  It was between him and the woman; private and personal.

Very personal.

The sheriff, reached out, tapping the older man’s arm.  “‘Bout time you had someone else takin’ up your time besides Johnny,” he breathed.  He smiled.  “You treat her right, Jelly.  It’s been a long time since my deputies had somewhere to get a decent burger…” Before he could finish the sentence, his cell began ringing.  He didn’t answer it, just noted the number that showed up on his screen.  “Well, duty calls.”  He stood up and headed for the counter; taking out his wallet and counting out several bills.

Angeline hurried over to the cash register and began ringing up.  When she counted out the change, the sheriff shook his head.  “You keep the change, Ms. Ferris.”  Turning, he nodded his goodbye to Jelly; winking, and headed out the door.

The woman returned to the table; placing a large slab of pie in front of Jelly.   She had put the pie in a wide-brimmed bowl, and it was heaped with Vanilla ice cream; flecks of vanilla bean showing.  She set the cup of coffee to Jelly’s right, leaning over a bit.

Jelly caught an eyeful.  The woman was wearing a jade colored blouse, the top two buttons open.  When she straightened, her right hand was covering the hollow between her breasts, as if she had just realized she had exposed herself; and she was blushing.  “Would you like some company with that pie?” she inquired.  “It’s not busy now, and I could really use a break.

“Of course, I’ll have to leave the table if someone comes in,” she teased.

There was a sound as Jelly cleared his throat.  “Why, that would be fine, Angel.”  He grinned up at the woman.  They had played this game before; several times in the last two weeks when he had secretly come into town on the sly.  “I’d enjoy the company.”

The woman hurried back to the coffee pots behind the front counter; choosing the regular and filling her cup.  When she returned to the booth, she settled in.

They talked.  It was a genuine, two-way conversation, and Jelly found himself — once again — laughing at the woman’s quick wit and sense of humor.  He was relieved that no one came in.  “Still can’t get over how you done so much in here so quick,” he nodded towards the improvements the woman had made. “Not on top of all the work you done out at my place, cleanin’ things up.”  It was, truly, an amazing accomplishment.

Angeline’s right eyebrow arched slightly.  “It wasn’t just me at the ranch, Jelly,” she said modestly.  “Adele worked very hard, too; and the other women from the church.”  She took a sip of coffee.  “How’s Johnny?” she asked innocently.

Jelly was stirring his brew, adding a second dose of cream.  The pie and ice cream were gone; not a crumb left.  “Comin’ along,” he answered; doing a good job of sounding nonchalant as he stirred his coffee.  “Dropped him off at school this mornin’.”

The woman’s face contorted in a brief frown.  It disappeared as suddenly it appeared when the man looked up.  “I didn’t know you drove Johnny into school.” she murmured.

The older man shrugged.  “Not every day,” he announced.  “Once a month, on bank day; when I come into town to take care of business.  Johnny rides in with me; the rest of the time he rides his Harley.”  He was fussing with the edge of the napkin now, rolling the fabric between his thumb and forefinger.  “No sense of the two of us burnin’ gas,” he explained.

Angeline nodded her head.  “That sounds very prudent,” she said approvingly.  “Although I’d bet Johnny doesn’t think so.”  She reached out, patting the back of the man’s hand.  “My brothers,” she reminded.  “Once they had their licenses, you couldn’t pry them out of their cars!”

Jelly laughed.  He was quiet a moment as he realized they had never really discussed her family.  Mostly, he had done the talking, and she had done the listening.  “Your brothers?  They around here, too?”

The woman’s face clouded.  “They’re gone now,” she whispered.  “My entire family.  In the end, it was just my husband and I, and then…”  She inhaled.  “He was sick such a long time.”  Her head lowering, she brushed a tear away from her right eye.  “I knew I needed to start over,” she said, brightening a bit as she waved her hand at her surroundings.  “And then you came along…”  She smiled; her face and mood brightening.  “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay…”

 Embarrassed, she raised her hand.  “Oh, not the money, Jelly!”  Her cheeks colored.  “Of course, I’ll pay back every cent of the loan.”  She laughed.  “It’s just that I’m not sure how to show my gratitude for your kindness.”  Reaching out, she grasped his hand.  “I’m so delighted you feel that it’s not just business anymore.  I was so afraid, after that rather rocky start with Johnny…”

The older man’s smile was genuine.  “The boy just needs some time,” he said.  “Just needs to settle back into a routine.”

Forcing a smile she didn’t really feel, the woman nodded in agreement.  “Well, I’ll just have to give him that time,” she gushed.  Then, tilting her head, she changed the subject.  “That faucet’s still dripping,” she whispered.  “The one in the kitchen, upstairs in my apartment.”

Jelly’s eyes lifted to explore the woman’s face.   “Shop’s still open,” he scolded.

She laughed; the sound sensual, exciting.  “That’s the advantage of being management, as well as the only employee,” she murmured.  Quickly, she rose up from her seat, and headed for the door.  She lifted the small plastic open/closed, will be back at  sign away from the window; taking a quick look at her wristwatch and noting the time.  It was only 11:30.  Fully aware of the schedule at the high school, and the fact that the students were not allowed off campus during the lunch hour, she manipulated the black plastic hands to read 2:30.

Jelly joined the woman, pulling closed the vertical blinds on the window at the left side of the front door; the woman doing the same on the right.  Once the shades were closed, she moved closer to the man.  The kiss was long and passionate.

He followed her across the room; through the kitchen and up the single flight of stairs to the second floor.

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

Johnny was pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of the school.  Gramps was late.  He was on his third go round when Seth Peters, the team’s quarterback, pulled up beside him; revving the engine of his Ford truck.  “So you want a ride, Madrid?” he asked.  “I mean, your Grandpa not showin’ up an’ all.”   He revved the Ford up again; the dual chrome pipes that came up on either side of the cab chattering against the truck’s body.

Peters, Johnny thought, was a prick; his biggest goal in life to become a long distance trucker like his asshole girl-in-every-truck-stop daddy.   He turned, flipped the jerk the bird, and kept walking.

“I’m gonna kick your ass, Madrid!” Peters shouted.

Johnny spun on his heel.  “Yeah?  You and what army, jack off?” he challenged.  His was walking backwards, watching Peters the whole time.  Then, suddenly, Peters took off; tossing gravel and dust as he peeled out.  Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny spied his Gramps truck.

“‘Bout time,” he groused.  He sprinted around the front of the truck and opened the passenger side door.  His mood mellowed, as soon as he stepped into the truck and smelled the food.  “What’s this?” he asked tapping the box.

“Strawberry-rhubarb pie for dessert tonight.”  Jelly picked up the plain white bag and thrust it at the younger man.  “Cookies; some free samples.  There’s a new bakery in town.”

Johnny’s nose was already stuck in the bag.  He dug in, pulling out a milk-chocolate chip cookie the size of a small pancake and started chewing.

Jelly smiled.  “So what you think?” he asked.

The youth was still chewing.  “Summ preey goostuff,” he said.

“Boy, how many times I got to tell you don’t talk with your mouth full,” Jelly scolded; his lips turning up in a wide grin.

The boy swallowed.  He was already picking out a second cookie.  “I said it’s some pretty good stuff,” he declared.  “Hey.  There’s peanut butter ones in here with those chocolate kisses on top!”

Jelly laughed.  “Next time, I’ll get some of her brownies.”

Johnny was so intent on his search, he missed the her.  He popped the second cookie into his mouth.

The older man decided now was as good a time as any.  “I won’t be home tomorrow night, Johnny,” he said.   Out of the side of his eye, he could see the youth rooting through the baked goods a third time, and resisted the urge to scold him about ruining his appetite before supper.  A pointless thing since Johnny never lost his appetite.  The boy was a bottomless pit.  “Did you hear what I said, Johnny?” he asked.

The youth had taken out a third cookie.  “Yeah,” he answered absently.  “You’re not gonna be home tomorrow night.”  He was eyeing the cookie in his hand a bit suspiciously; fingering one of the plump raisins.  Holding it up to his nose, he could smell cinnamon.  Still…  Shrugging, he took a bite and was surprised to find oatmeal that actually tasted pretty good.  “So where you goin’?”  He folded the soft cookie in half, and stuck the entire thing in his mouth.

Jelly was staring straight ahead; somehow relieved that they were almost home.  “I’ve got a date,” he answered.

Johnny’s eyes widened and he started to speak, only to start choking on the cookie.  Gobs of unchewed oatmeal and raisins spewed from his mouth, and he began coughing.

Stepping on the gas, Jelly headed through the open gate leading to the front yard; steering with his left hand as he thumped Johnny’s back with the flat palm of his right.  “Put your arms up,” he ordered; “spread those ribs out and breathe.”

Johnny moved forward in the seat, away from the pounding right hand.  “A date!?” he sputtered.  His Gramps often ‘kept company’ with Adele Jackson on social outings, but he had never called it a date.  He took a couple deep breaths.  “With who?”

Jelly braked to a stop at the front of the house.  “With a lady,” he answered; his tone indicating he wasn’t going to say anything more; or tolerate any teasing.

The brunet was staring into the white cookie bag.  There were three left.  One of the sweets was fudge dark, and there were walnuts poking out of the moist round.  “Okay,” he said; fully recovered.

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

Saturday night had arrived.  Arms crossed, Johnny stood leaning against the wall, just inside the bedroom door, a mischievous grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.   “Lookin’ pretty, Gramps,” he teased.  “Better hurry, though.  Don’t look good showin’ up late, ya know.”  The old man had finally told him where he was going.  “Ya know how them guys at the VFW are about bein’ on time and all.”

Jelly was at the dresser in front of the mirror, his fingers busy with his tie.  He shifted his gaze to his grandson’s reflection; frowning a bit as he saw the smirk.  Johnny’s eyes were dancing.  “You’re a good one to be lecturin’ me about bein’ late,” he groused.  Johnny had no sense of time whatsoever.  Satisfied his tie was just right, he dug into the wooden bowl on his dresser and picked up the gold tie clasp, pinching it in place.

He was wearing a crisp white shirt and his navy blue suit pants.  Turning around, he moved to the bed and picked up his jacket.  Slipping his right arm into the sleeve, he eased the tailored jacket across his shoulders and fastened the buttons.  He stepped up to the dresser one final time, checking himself out full front and then in profile.  Beard neatly trimmed, his hair recently cropped, he cut a pretty imposing figure; much as he did on the ceremonial occasions he when wore his Marine corps dress blues, which still fit. He sighed.  If his hair just wasn’t so damned grey, he thought.  And the beard; damned near white now.  If he let it grow, he mused, he could play Santa Claus the Post’s Christmas party.

“Gramps,” Johnny called from where he was still lounging against the wall.  He was still grinning ear to ear.  “‘S’pose it’s time to have that talk,” he drawled.  “‘Bout the birds and the bees; bein’ careful…”

Jelly turned to face the young man, his eyes narrowing.  “The only talk we’re goin’ to have, boy, is the one where I’m wearin’ out your behind while I teach you not to get smart with your elders!”  He nodded towards the living room and followed the boy through the door.   “Sit,” he ordered, pointing to his footstool.

Obediently (maybe too obediently) Johnny sat; perched on the edge of the ottoman like he was sitting on a fence.  It wasn’t long before his fingers were drumming against the leather.

The older man put on his stern grandfather face.  “Just because I’m goin’ out tonight, don’t make the rules no different.  You go out, you call me and tell me where you’re goin’, and then you make sure you’re back home by eleven.”  He took in a deep breath.  “There’s a dance after the dinner, so I won’t be home ‘til late.  I don’t want to see no light on in your bedroom window when I drive up, and no stuffin’ a blanket against the bottom of that door so’s I can’t see the light from that computer.”

Johnny dipped his head, hiding the grin.  “How come you don’t have no curfew?” he groused.

Jelly straightened.  “Because I’m the grandpa,” he answered.

The younger man sighed.  “I’m headin’ over to the Jackson’s place,” he said.  “Me and Kevin are gonna work on that old Kawasaki he picked up at the sheriff’s auction.”  It wasn’t too much of a lie.

Flicking a piece of lint off his otherwise impeccable jacket, Jelly nodded.  “There’s some beef tamales in the oven that’ll be done by six; and a salad already fixed in the fridge.  You clean up your mess when you’re through, and don’t eat the rest of that pie.”

Johnny stood up straight and saluted.  Then, relenting, he grinned across at the older man.  “You really look good, Gramps,” he said.

Jelly shoed him away.  “You be home by eleven,” he cautioned gruffly.

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

Johnny stood by the open front door, watching as Jelly headed for the single car garage that stood right next to the machinery shed.  He smiled.  Gramps owned two vehicles: the big Dodge Ram — the ranch work horse — and the “good” car; a silver Ford Taurus.   The old man was proud of the Ford; a top of the line four door sedan with all the whistles and bells.  Power windows, heated leather seats, cruise; the whole nine yards.  Johnny thought of the car as a boat; and the only time he had ever driven it was when he took his driver’s test.  After that, the Ram was his vehicle of choice.  At least until he’d gotten the Harley.

He watched as the overhead door on the garage opened and Jelly backed out.  The garage door ground shut, and then Jelly was off.

Johnny headed to the kitchen.  It was close enough to six o’clock he knew the tamales would be done, and he was going to dump the salad.  He ate standing up, right out of the pan.  Covering the leftovers with foil, he shoved them in the fridge; and took out the pie.  Licking the tamale fork clean with his tongue; he measured off a piece and ate it straight from the tin as well.  Then, thirsty, he pulled out the glass jug that held the home-produced, raw milk.  He didn’t bother to shake it; taking a long drink from the container, enjoying the flavor of the cream.  Replacing the jug, he wiped the white moustache from his upper lip; shut the fridge, and turned to the sink to take care of his dishes.  He grinned as he soaped the single fork, rinsed it, and put it in the drainer.

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

True to his word, Johnny — now clad in his leathers — was headed over to Kevin Jackson’s place.   The Jackson clan, like Jelly Hoskins’ family, had been in the Sabinal hill country since Texas had become a Republic.  They, too, were small ranchers, stubborn and self-sufficient.  Kevin’s father had died of a heart attack shortly after his son had started grade school, and Mrs. Jackson had not only managed to run the small outfit; she had also taught full time at Sabinal Elementary.

Down-shifting, Johnny eased the Harley into the main driveway leading towards the house, almost idling as he passed the horse pens.  Kevin was just coming out of the corral.

“Hey,” the red head called.  He was dusting off his Wranglers; using his baseball cap.  A few inches taller than Johnny, the young man weighed the same; and he was straw-stick thin.  “Got the bike runnin’ just before supper,” he announced proudly.

Johnny levered the kick stand down on the Harley and dismounted.  He wasn’t wearing his helmet; it was still hanging by its strap from the back bar.  “You or your Uncle Jake?” he teased.  Kevin’s maternal uncle worked for the county and operated a small garage and gas station on the side.

Kevin bent down and scooped up a dried horse apple and chucked it at his friend.   “Me, jackass!” he laughed.  “Uncle Jake’s got his hands full with all the tractor repair he’s been doin’!  Spring is comin’, you know.”

The two youths had had known each other since kindergarten; and a bond had formed between them early on.  Kevin had been a surprise baby; born when his parents were in their early forties.  So the two boys had been united in their isolation from their peers; December babies and a year behind the other kids, ridiculed not only because of their age, but their lack of siblings and the grey-haired parents and grandparent who had stuck out like sore thumbs at school events, social and sporting.

That ridicule had followed them through grade school into high-school.  But it had made both boys tough.  Kevin and Johnny, neither one, took any shit from anybody.  They also tended to get into their share of trouble, usually without considering the consequences.

Adele Jackson stepped out onto the front porch; the spring on the wood frame screen door singing as she opened the portal wide.  “Johnny!” she greeted.  She was wiping her hands on a soft cotton dishtowel.

“Ma’am,” Johnny drawled.  He was surprised to see the woman, and it showed in his face; he had assumed that she was the lady his grandfather had taken out for the evening.  Quickly, he hid the shock behind a lopsided grin.

The petite woman was smiling.  “I suppose you boys think you’re going to be doing some bike riding tonight?” she asked, smoothing her hair.

Kevin shot a look at his friend and shrugged.  “Now, Mom,” he began.  His lips parted in a wide grin, the freckled face alight with mischief.  “You know Johnny and I are always careful!”  He moved towards the woman like a slinking cat, grabbing her around the waist and picking her up to spin her around.

Johnny felt a familiar tug when he watched the horseplay.  He moved closer to join in, his fingers closing around the woman’s waist from behind as Kevin passed her off.  The woman was as light as a feather.

She was laughing; pretending to struggle as she gasped for air.  “Stop it,” she ordered.  “You put me down this instant, Johnny!!  You’re not so old I can’t put you in a chair in the corner, you know!”

“Whoa!”  Johnny released the woman and backed off.  “I’ll be good,” he promised.  Then he smiled at her; the little boy smile that had charmed her from his kindergarten days.

The woman didn’t believe it for a minute.  “I want to know where you are going,” she said firmly.

Kevin felt that since it was his mother, it should be his fib; but Johnny butted in.  “Just up to those old trails in the hills north of town; where Kevin and me — I –” he quickly corrected himself, “used to ride our dirt bikes.”

She sighed, nodding her head.  Kevin and Johnny had been involved in a variety of activities as they had grown up: Junior rodeo, gun clubs, little league, Pop Warner football, dirt bike racing.  The little league and Pop Warner football had fallen by the wayside as they grew; both boys preferring non-team sports.  It was, she supposed, a reflection of their circumstances; growing up in a single child household under the watchful eyes of mature adults who didn’t always display the sometimes rabid enthusiasm or sideline encouragement of the younger parents.  She inhaled.  “All right.”  Turning to look up at her son, she nodded towards the house.  “You get your clothes changed,” she instructed.  Her eyes narrowing, she swung her gaze to the brunet.  “And you, young man,” she said, shaking her finger, “I want to see you wearing that helmet when you leave.”

Johnny blushed.  Although he would never admit it, he loved it when Kevin’s Mom fussed at him; the same way she ragged on her son.   “Yes, ma’am,” he murmured.

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

Single file, they followed the cow path along the fence line as they headed towards the highway; the pearl black Harley ahead of the candy apple red Kawasaki.  Finally reaching the section of fence used as an access gate by the semis that still occasionally loaded livestock from the row of nearby stock pens; the two youth’s pulled up to idle side-by-side.   Johnny pulled off his helmet; raking his hair with his gloved left hand.  “So you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

Kevin had removed his helmet as well.  “Hey, we did take a turn around the old track,” he grinned.

Johnny laughed.  It was true.  To ease their consciences over the fib they had told Kevin’s mother, they had run a full circuit around the seldom used dirt bike track.  “Okay,” he nodded.  He shut down and dismounted the Fat Boy and made for the gate.  “Hey, Kev, you think if we took a run at it…” he nodded towards the fence, “…we could do a Steve McQueen?”  He shot a cockeyed grin at his companion.   Both of them were unabashed fans of the movie The Great Escape.

Kevin eased his bike through the opening; passing close enough to Johnny he could almost whisper his reply.  “Probably.  But I don’t think I’d want to explain it to Mom if we messed up.”  He powered down and parked the motorcycle; taking his friend’s place at the wire.  “‘Sides, I’m interested in the racin’ I’ve been hearin’ about; not playin’ Evil Kanevil!”  When Johnny pulled up at his side, he dragged the fence post back into place; lifting it and hooking it into the bottom wire loop, securing the top of the stake with a similar piece of baling wire.  His mood changed, and he hesitated a bit before he asked the question.   “I saw the way you looked at Mom when she came out of the house, Johnny.  Like you were surprised, or something.  What’s up?” he asked.  Deep inside, he already knew the answer.

Johnny was astride the Harley, the bike leaning slightly to the left; held upright between the young man’s legs.  “Gramps said he had a date tonight; some shindig at the VFW,” he announced.  He shrugged, still not looking at his companion.  “Just figured it was your Mama…”

Kevin’s mouth turned down in a sudden frown.   “Yeah.  Well, you figured wrong,” he snorted.  He didn’t even attempt to hide the disdain.  “Your Gramps has been too busy with his nose stuck up that Ferris woman’s ass to have time for…”  Seeing the look on his friend’s face — the sudden, angry flushing of Johnny’s cheeks — he shut up.  For a long moment, the only sound was the soft rumbling of the two motorcycles as they idled.   “Sorry.  Thought you knew.”

The brunet’s face had hardened; a remoteness in his eyes that caused the irises to change color, the blue suddenly as cold and emotionless as two glass marbles.  “The day cook out at the TA said she was gone…” he breathed.

Kevin was shaking his head.  “From the truck stop.  She’s opened up a place in Sabinal,” he announced.  “A bakery.  I heard Uncle Jake tellin’ Mom about it last night after supper.”  He was quiet again.  He’d seen the hurt on his mother’s face when his uncle had brought up the woman’s name.  “Mom said you didn’t much like her.”  Johnny didn’t talk about what had happened at the ranch during the kidnapping or afterwards in South America.  Kevin wasn’t happy about that because he thought his friend was holding too much inside, but he also wasn’t going to push.  Johnny was like a brother to him, and although they squabbled and sometimes went to fist city over some of their disagreements, they remained close.

Johnny cranked up the Harley.  He didn’t know what pissed him off more: that he hadn’t realized who his Gramps was taking out, or that the old man hadn’t told him.  The piece of pie he had eaten after supper — her fuckin’ pie — was turning sour in his stomach and he thought for a moment he was going to puke.  “She’s a bitch,” he breathed, in no mood to continue the discussion.

Bareheaded, his helmet now hanging from the back bar, Johnny revved up the motorcycle several times before popping a wheelie and tearing out into the roadway.  Unmindful of Kevin’s shouted “Watch out!!” he didn’t look either left or right as he shot across the concrete.

The semi driver laid on the air horn; a series of sharp toots coming as Johnny cut dangerously in front of the eighteen wheeler; kicking the Harley into high gear.  He was travelling at a high enough speed when he hit the graveled shoulder on the opposite side of the road; the bike lifted to fly across the narrow ditch beside the highway.  He landed hard, skidding to a sideways stop as he waited for his friend.

Kevin pulled up beside the brunet and yanked his helmet off.  “Goddammit, Johnny, you could’ve got yourself killed!!”

Johnny shrugged.  “Didn’t,” he snorted.  He nodded in a northerly direction.  “You comin’ or what?”

Shaking his head, Kevin smoothed his hair and replaced his helmet.  He hated it when Johnny got in a mood.  “Yeah,” he answered.  He started the bike and they moved out.

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

The two youths sat on a slight ridge overlooking a broad expanse of brush covered landscape.  Below them was the remainder of a two lane highway, the concrete broken and shafts of wild grass and scrub poking up from the tar strips that separated the old sections.  The abandoned roadway had once been the main thoroughfare, before the survey crews had laid out the new road.  For as far as the eye could see in both directions the country side was littered with abandoned buildings: gas stations, a Dairy Queen, the stark whiteness of an old wide-screened drive-in movie theatre; the concave surface of the screen and the marquee punctured with bullet holes.  Boarded up motels added to the desolation; derelict cars parked in eerie precision in the littered parking lots, as if waiting for ghost drivers from another time.

Drawing the attention of the young men, however, was the large building that had once been one of the largest Cadillac dealerships in the county.  Mercury vapor lights ringed the large, asphalt paved lot; the sensors that turned them on at night once again active, a faint glow coming as the sun began to set.  There was activity in the building as well; a large neon Harley-Davison light hanging in the front window.

At the front of the building, a long row of motorcycles stood in an even line.  The faint sputter of motors came as the wind shifted, and the two youths exchanged smiles.  Beyond the main building, more lights were beginning to blink on; halogen lights this time, leaning inward a bit to illuminate a new, wide stretch of asphalt.  It was a race track; sprawling out and over the hillsides, stacks of tires and bales of hay strategically placed at the sharper turns.

Johnny pushed off, his earlier anger quelled.  Together, he and Kevin made a leisurely ride across the hillside.  They pulled up to the front door and parked.

A tall man in a black Harley tee-shirt was standing on the tarmac; just in front of the open door.  Behind him, a half dozen men were working on an assortment of motorcycles.  “Boys,” he greeted.  His voice was soft; nasal, a strange, mocking humor in the sound.

Johnny lifted his right leg up and over the gas tank and slid off the Harley.  “Evenin’,” he greeted.

“Nice bike,” the older man said, nodding.  He stepped forward, fingering the smooth finish on the front fender.  “1998 Soft-tail,” he said appreciatively.  “Fat Boy Stage II Kit.”  His hand drifted to the chrome headlight.  He walked around the motorcycle, continuing his appraisal.  “Custom pipes, S&S Carb.”  He patted the custom, black leather seat.  “You do the work, or you got a rich Daddy?” he baited.

Johnny snorted.  “Picked it up off a junk pile,” he announced.  Not exactly a lie.  He had found the bike in a salvage yard when he was looking for spare parts for an old pickup his Gramps had bought him as a fixer-upper.  The old Plymouth was still sitting behind the barn.  He nodded in Kevin’s direction.  “His uncle helped me get it runnin’; I did the rest myself.”

“Looking to sell it?” the older man asked, his eyes narrowing.  He reached up, smoothing his well-trimmed moustache with his right forefinger.

“Hell, no!” Johnny answered.  He cocked his head.  “Heard you run races here.  Entry fee; cash prizes.”

The man was grinning.  It was more of a grimace than a smile, and there was not a hint of warmth in his dark eyes.  Cocky little bastard, he thought.   “For the grown-ups,” he said.  “You grown up?”

Johnny’s smile was the same as the older man’s.  “Enough to kick ass out there,” he announced, jerking his head in the direction of the track.  “Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon, right?”

Again, the man made a circuit around the motorcycle.  “Every week,” he answered.  “Once a month, we race for pink slips.  You got the cajones for that?”

Johnny’s smile slipped, but only slightly.  He was getting tired of being tested.  “Maybe,” he answered.  “I’m more interested in takin’ the money.”

The older man nodded.  “Nice helmet,” he said, fingering the design; the pistols.  “I don’t let anyone race unless they’re wearin’ helmets.”

Johnny snickered.  “That sounds kind of ball-less,” he sniped.  “It’s Saturday.  You racin’ or what?” 

“Starts at eight,” the man answered.  He shot a look at the other boy; smirking a bit at the Kawasaki.  “He your pit man?”

Without looking at Kevin, Johnny answered.  “Tonight,” he answered.  “What’s the fee?”

The man was unfolding his right sleeve, taking out a pack of Pall Malls he had stashed in the rolled-up fabric.  “We do this just like the big boys in the big city,” he said, digging into the front pocket of his Levi’s for his lighter.  “No qualifyin’ runs; just flat out ridin’.  A hundred bucks entrance fee; each race.”  He lit up, sucking in and letting the smoke trail through his nose.

“Johnny?”  This from Kevin.

Grinning, Johnny turned to face his friend.  Around him, he could hear the crunching of gravel: could sense and smell the grit and grime of gas-fed engines, the air around him pungent with the aroma of men and machines as more bikers began pulling into the parking lot.  His eyes swept the emotionless faces that stared back at him as he instinctually picked up on the tension and excitement that simmered beneath the grim façades of toughness.  Head dipping, he chewed on his bottom lip; fighting the smile that was threatening to spread across his entire countenance.  He was beginning to feel like the star in a really bad Hell’s Angels movie.

His expression now one of total nonchalance, he lifted his head to face the older man, bending forward slightly to unzip his left pant leg.  He dug into the top of his boot and brought out a small stack of double-overed bills; unpeeling five twenties.  “My name’s Madrid,” he said.  “Johnny Madrid.”

The big man grinned and held out his right hand.  He knew damned good and well who the boy was.  Hell, he knew as much about the kid as he did about his old man, the high and mighty General Murdoch Lancer.  “Pardee,” he said.  “Day Pardee.”

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

Johnny was standing beside his Harley; dust covered, his right cheek smudged with grease.  He didn’t even bother to hide the grin when he stuffed the wad of bills into the inside pocket of his jacket and zipped it closed.  He’d raced three times, and each time had crossed the finish line well ahead of the other competitors.  Cocky, he patted the front of his jacket.  “I think I’m gonna like spendin’ time here,” he crowed.  Crossing the finish line and hearing the shouts of the onlookers had been as much of a high as winning the gold; the rush increasing as the competition got tougher.

Kevin was shaking his head.  He had watched the races from the sidelines, even after Johnny’s first win and his friend had offered to put up the entry fee.  There was no way in hell he was going to join Johnny in the free-for-all racing he had witnessed; the asphalt track a hell of a lot more hairy than riding in the dirt.  Twenty bikers at a time, going full bore and jockeying for position with no regard for the other riders.  There had been two serious pile ups in the last race; Johnny narrowly missing one of the downed bikes in the final sprint for the finish.  Kevin had almost lost his supper on that one.  “You’re crazy,” he muttered.

The brunet laughed.   “Crazy would be losin’,” he snorted.  Once again, he patted the bulge in his jacket.  “Three hundred bucks in entry fees, and I got twelve hundred dollars in my pocket.”  He shrugged.  “Beats the hell outta pushin’ French fries at Burger King, or shovin’ buckets through the window at KFC.”

Kevin frowned.  “Or pumpin’ gas at my Uncle Jake’s?” he asked.  Jake’s place was one of the few gas stations around the county — hell, the whole state — where people, especially the old folks, could still sit in their cars while someone pumped gas, cleaned the windshields and checked the oil.  Both he and Johnny picked up extra spending money working at the gas station, especially during the summer.

Johnny’s expression clouded.  “I wasn’t takin’ a dig at you, Kev,” he breathed.

The red head nodded.  “Okay,” he said.  He inhaled.  “Not gonna make much difference, anyway.  How are you gonna explain the extra money to your Gramps?  You got tonight, but how many Saturday nights do you figure you’re gonna be able to come out here without him findin’ out what you’re doin’?  And you sure in Hell aren’t gonna be able to race on Sundays.”  Johnny’s mother had been Catholic, and Jelly Hoskins had been very diligent in making sure that his adopted grandson attended Sunday morning Mass.

Johnny snorted.  He hadn’t really thought much beyond the right here and right now.  “Gramps ain’t the only one who can keep a secret.  And they don’t start racin’ ‘til noon on Sundays.”

Kevin laughed.  He was about to say something in regards to living in a small town, and how everyone eventually knew everyone else’s business, changing his mind when he saw Day Pardee approaching.  Instead, he nodded towards the highway.  “It’s almost ten thirty, Johnny,” he said.  “You got the same curfew as me.  We need to be headin’ home.”

Pardee had ears like a hawk, and the same ravenous eyes.  He reached out, smacking Johnny’s chest with the back of his hand.  “Wouldn’t want you getting into trouble at home, Madrid,” he smirked, “have your Daddy getting all worked up and taking your bike away.  You might want to listen to your amigo.”

Johnny’s head snapped up.  “You race ‘til midnight, right?”             

The older man was grinning.  “That’s the deal I got with the local law,” he replied.  “Last race at midnight; everything cleaned up nice and tidy and shut down by bar time.”

Kevin was putting on his helmet.  He knew from the look on Johnny’s face he was going to be making the ride back to his house alone.

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

Johnny was parked on the small ridge above the house; the Harley turned off and balanced at an angle between his legs, the youth’s left foot firmly planted on the ground.  It was close to two in the morning, and the landscape was bathed in the soft glow of a waning moon.  Everything seemed surreal.

He knew he was in deep shit; had known it the minute he’d let Kevin take off alone.  Exhaling, he considered how much trouble he was going to be in, secretly wondering why he had been such a jerk.  Funny thing, though, he really didn’t regret his decision to stay; even after he had lost the final sprint race.  Hell, he still had a pocket full of money — his right hand brushed the front of his jacket — and the talk with Pardee after the track closed was pretty fucking interesting.

Pardee had regaled him with stories of his early days as the leader of an outlaw biker gang; tales of bar fights and brawls, boozing and broads.  Johnny had watched the man’s eyes, and knew he wasn’t lying; if anything the man had in all likelihood held back.  El Paso chapter, the man had told him.  And he still had contacts there.

The part about El Paso had drawn Johnny’s attention: big time.   The Ferris woman was from El Paso, and Johnny had been tempted to ask if Pardee knew her.  But then, before he had the chance, Pardee had told him that El Paso was a good place to get lost in if a person wanted; and a convenient  gateway to Mexico if you wanted some real fun.  The man had even extended an invitation of sorts.  ‘You made quite an impression on my boys, Johnny,’ he said; ‘proved what you could do out there.’  He had nodded at the track.  ‘Next time my crew and I take a ride to the El Paso for some real fun, might be we’d welcome the company.’

Real fun, Johnny thought.  He’d forgotten what real fun could be; at least until he had raced.

A flicker of light caught his eye, and he watched as a set of halogen headlights appeared on the road leading to the ranch driveway.  Shit!  Shit, shit, shit!  He’d hoped that his Gramps was already at home.  Hell, he’d done a pretty good job of building a body double in his bed, knowing the old man would peek in to check on him; even though he claimed he didn’t do that anymore.  Another fuckin’ lie, Johnny thought bitterly.

He knew now he was going to have to wait until his Gramps parked the car before he snuck back into the house.  Not that that was a big deal.  Gramps had a thing about tea roses, and there was a lattice right below his bedroom window; damned near as good as having a ladder!  Wasn’t like he hadn’t used it before.  But he was going to have to push the bike the rest of the way down the hill.

The youth started to dismount when he noticed that his Gramps hadn’t pulled the Taurus into the narrow garage.  The driver’s side door opened, and Gramps stepped out.  And then he went around the rear of the car to open the passenger door.

Johnny couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  There, in all her glory, was Angeline Ferris.

No longer caring about how he got to the house, Johnny cranked up the Harley.  Purposely, he revved the engine several times, and then — spewing gravel in his wake — popped a wheelie and tore down the hillock.

Instinctively, Jelly put himself between the woman and the sound of the approaching motorcycle.  The bike’s headlight appeared on the horizon like a comet hurtling low on the horizon towards the earth; and the old gunny cursed himself for purposely delaying the installation of the security system Murdoch had insisted he consider.

The last thing he expected to see was his adopted grandson.  At first, there was the sudden relief of recognition, and then — as Johnny skidded sideways into the driveway, gravel flying and pinging against the Ford — a flaming hot anger that was primed by the highballs he and the woman had been drinking at the party.  “What the Hell do you think you’re doin’, boy!?” he roared.  “Do you know what time it is?”

Johnny jammed down the kick-stand on the bike, but didn’t dismount.  “What the Hell do you think you’re doin’, Gramps?” he shouted back.  “And what the Hell is that fuckin’ puta…”

Jelly wasted no time in crossing the few feet to where Johnny still sat astride his Harley.  He reached out, grabbing the youth’s arm.  “You get your sorry butt off that bike, and get into that house!  You and me are gonna talk, boy, and I’m not gonna put up with no more of your sass.”  Reaching back, he gestured for the woman to join him.  Taking her left hand in his right, he raised it up beneath the boy’s nose.  “That’s an engagement ring,” he announced.  It hadn’t been his intention to break it to the boy like this, but hell’s bells, what was a man to do when he’d been caught with his drawers damned near down around his ankles?  It wasn’t like he wanted the kid to think he was some old randy playin’ at casual sex. “Angeline and me are gettin’ married, and you’re just goin’ to have to live with it!”

Johnny’s chest was heaving with each breath he took.  His eyes darted from the old man’s face and then to the woman’s.  She was smiling at him; grinning like some fuckin’ cobra.

Jerking his arm away from the older man, he cranked up the Harley, and took off.


Angeline’s fingers closed around the older man’s hand.  “He’ll come back, Jelly,” she soothed, caressing the man’s cheek.  “We should have handled this better, given him more time…”

Jelly turned to face the woman.  “I….”

She pressed her fingers against his lips, moving in for the kiss.  “It’s getting cold, darling.  We should go into the house.”

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

Day Pardee came forward in his chair, his hands clasped in front of him as he rested his elbows on the table.  There was a bottle of Mexican white lightning at his right elbow, 80 proof tequila; the bar blend he kept in stock for the after race parties.  A bowl of fresh lime slices was at the center of the table, along with a saucer of sea salt.  Grinning, he addressed his young guest.  “So your old man caught you sneakin’ in?” he asked.

Johnny was toying with the still-full shot glass.  Memories of his first experience with the agave based liquor — his little escapade with some older team mates in Beijing — flashed through his mind, causing his stomach to roll.  He decided he didn’t care if he ended up puking his guts out, and downed the shot in a single swallow.  “So when you plannin’ that trip to El Paso?” he asked, picking up a slice a lime and leaning forward.

Pardee canted his head.  He knew the youth had a thousand dollars in his pocket; probably burning a hole.  “Another couple of hours,” he gestured towards the front window of the building with his empty glass, “I’m goin’ to be runnin’ another series of sprints, and the regular races.  I got a business here, Johnny.”  He reached out, picking up the bottle of tequila, filling the youth’s glass, and then his own.  “El Paso’s damned near five hundred miles from here.  It’s not like takin’ some ride up into the hills…”

Johnny was nodding his head.  “Didn’t say I was lookin’ on leavin’ here tomorrow,” he drawled.  “I’m just thinkin’ about it…”

Reel him in, Pardee thought, hiding the smirk as he reached up to smooth his moustache.  “Monday, Johnny,” he breathed, not sounding all that anxious.  He leaned back in his chair.  “You need a somewhere to crash; bunk down for the night?  Your friend’s house, maybe?”

The brunet shrugged.  “I got other places,” he answered.  He had been sipping the tequila.  Tilting the half-empty shot glass up to his lips, he drained the shot glass, but didn’t make any move to leave the table.

Pardee stood up.  “Take your time, Johnny,” he murmured, patting the youth’s shoulder and taking his leave.

Johnny remained seated, his eyes busy.  Pardee’s men — the hangers on Johnny had observed between races — were still hanging around, and he knew he was being watched.  Let ‘em size me up, he mused, scratching at the label on the drink bottle with his thumb nail as if he didn’t have a concern in the world.  They may be older, but they sure in Hell aren’t any better.  Proved that when I beat their asses out on the track.

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

Chewing his lip nervously, Johnny listened to the phone ring.  It was finally answered on the fifth ring and the voice that answered caused a grimace of disgust to pinch his face.  Not that he was all that surprised.

“Hoskins Ranch,” Angeline purred seductively.

Johnny held his breath; his eyes closing as he waited for the international operator to ask the question: Will you accept a collect call from Johnny Madrid?

There was the sound of breathy laughter, the woman again.  It was plain from her voice she was enjoying what was about to transpire, and she hesitated ever so slightly before she replied.  “Of course we’ll accept.”

You may continue with your call, the disembodied voice instructed.

There would be no polite amenities.  “Let me speak to Gramps,” Johnny demanded, not bothering to hide his displeasure that Miss Ferris had answered his home phone in the early morning hours.

The woman’s sickeningly sweet voice made Johnny want to puke and he clenched his teeth as he heard her call out to his Gramps. “Jelly, darling, are you awake?  It’s Johnny.  He’s calling collect.”

 Johnny could feel the anger clawing at his belly.  The bitch didn’t even attempt to hide the fact she was in Jelly’s bed.  In the background, he could hear the old man untangling himself from the bedcovers and then the muffled plop-plop as Jelly plumped his pillows.  There was a long pause as the old man cleared his throat several times and coughed.   At last the older man spoke.  “Where the Hell are you, boy?”  Jelly demanded.  Even over the ‘phone it was obvious he was trying hard to hold on to his temper.  “I’ve had Gabe scourin’ the county lookin’ for you; and I’ve been back and forth to the Jackson place more times than I can count…”  The anger was beginning to fade, the worry becoming evident.  “Had me worried to death…”

Johnny sucked in a breath, biting his tongue to keep from saying what he wanted to say: how worried can you be with that fuckin’ bitch in your bed?  He fought the urge to lash out; because, now — right now — he needed help.  “Gramps, can you just come and get me?” he asked.  Try as he could, he couldn’t completely keep the panic out of his voice.

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

Jelly grunted as he struggled to sit up.  Without meaning to, he gruffly brushed the woman’s hands away from his bare chest.  “Where are you?” he asked.  A hundred scenarios tore through his mind, and he closed his eyes to gather his thoughts.  The boy is all right, he told himself, calming down; he’s talkin’ to me, so he’s all right.

“I’m in Juárez,” Johnny answered.  There was no point in lying.  His hand tightened into a fist against the brick wall when he heard the Ferris woman talking in the background.  His first instinct was to hang up; to slam the receiver of the pay phone back down, but he had been told this was the only call he was going to get.  He was quiet for a heartbeat, and then spit out the words he knew were going to ignite an already short fuse. “I rode down here with some friends.  I woke up in jail all by myself and nobody’s tellin’ me anything.  I don’t even know what happened to the rest of ‘em.”  Aware of what was coming, he held the receiver away from his ear.

 “What!?” Jelly roared.  He had levered himself into a sitting position, his spine rigid, and was now swinging his legs over the side of the bed.  “Your daddy will go ballistic over this when I tell him!  You been gone since early Sunday mornin’ and now you tell me you’re five hundred miles from where you outta be!?”  The old man rose up from the bed, grabbing for his pants, grateful when the woman went to his closet and fetched him a fresh shirt.

Like any other teen-ager in a shit-load of trouble, Johnny was looking for concern and comfort instead of the ire he was getting, and the boy’s temper took hold of his tongue.  It didn’t help that he had a king-sized hangover.  “You don’t have to tell my Old Man a goddamn thing; I’ll call him myself!  He’s already proved he’ll do anything he has to do to help me.  And when he does come for me, I’ll be goin’ back to Lancer with him; and you can just go right back to fuckin’ your lady friend!”  he shouted.  This time he did slam down the phone.

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

Captain Pablo Esteban of the Juárez police force stood at the doorway of his small office, studying the youth that was now slumped against the brick wall of the littered hallway.  The boy’s eyes were blood shot, his long hair disheveled, and his clothes were not only rumpled, there were signs the young man had been in a fight.  At first glance, he had seemed no different than the other young gringos who came south of the border in search of drugs and trouble.  But there was something about this one that set him apart.

Esteban continued his shrewd appraisal.  The youth was, except for the ill-fitting shirt beneath his jacket, clad head to toe in black leather; and it was obvious even to an unpracticed eye that his clothes had been custom tailored to fit his lithe frame.  There was also the jet black classic Harley that had been confiscated when the young man was arrested.   Everything about youth, despite the rough edges, spoke of a life of privilege.

The Capitan, an old hand at the informal intrigues of international diplomacy — especially the highly profitable trade regarding the norteamericanos and their desire for anonymity — sensed immediately that if he played his cards right he could make a nice tidy sum off the young boy.  He stepped out into the hallway.  “Do you need to call someone else?” he inquired solicitously.  The man’s English was quite good.

Johnny looked up, his eyes adjusting to the dim light of the hallway as he focused on the man who had just called out to him.  He managed to hide his surprise and nodded his head.  Instinct — and memories of the horror stories he had heard about what it could mean to be arrested in Mexico — prompted him to act with caution.   He smiled, the little boy lost smile that worked on everyone except his elder brother, Scott.   “I need to call my father,” he drawled, “if that’s all right.”  The smile grew.  He guessed the captain’s age to be somewhere in the middle forties; and there was a wide gold ring on the third finger of the man’s left hand.  Johnny found himself hoping the lawman had kids; maybe even a kid his age.  He dipped his head, his chin resting briefly on his chest.  “I should have called him to begin with,” he shrugged.  “It’s just I know he’s gonna be piss…” blushing, he corrected himself, “…be mad.”

The Captain smiled; a row of well-maintained teeth shark-white against his dark skin.  It was clear the boy was a charmer.   Gesturing with his right hand, he stepped back and pointed to his desk; deciding to play the game.  “The phone is at your disposal.  Be aware, however, your Papa will be charged for the long distance.”  He turned and left the room, careful to leave the door slightly ajar.

Taking a few deep breaths and rubbing his hands on his knees in an attempt to steady his nerves and build up the courage to make the call, Johnny picked up the receiver with a slightly shaking hand and punched in his father’s private cell number.   He blinked when it was answered on the third ring.

“Hello,” Murdoch answered hesitantly; a hint of question in his voice at the unknown number displayed on the screen of the cell reserved for family use only.

Hearing his father’s voice brought the knot of apprehension from Johnny’s stomach to lodge in his throat, his nostrils flaring slightly as he sniffed and fought to stem the warmth stinging at his eyes.  Right now he didn’t feel like such a bad ass; not the way he had felt when Day Pardee and his gang of bikers made the long ride with him to El Paso.  Just the sound of his dad’s voice made him long to once again be held tight in the man’s arms; to be far from this place and the stench of regurgitated beer and tequila-tainted urine.   He sucked up and spit it out.  “Dad, can you come get me?”

Thinking Johnny had finally decided to accept his invitation to come home to Lancer to live; a big smile bloomed on Murdoch’s face, his delight causing his eyes to sparkle in the moonlight as he sat up in bed and turned on a lamp.  Aware Scott was now standing in the bedroom doorway, obviously having been awakened by the ringing phone; he gestured for his elder son to join him.  “Of course I’ll come and get you, son,” he assured, not even questioning the odd hour of the call.  “I’ll be in Texas before afternoon.  In fact, your brother is here, and I’m sure he’ll want to come with me.”  Grinning up at his elder son, he adjusted the volume on the telephone; holding it in the palm of his hand so Scott could also listen.

Johnny felt a great wave of relief at the news there was a good chance his brother would also be coming.   Still, it didn’t make the next words all that easy.  “Dad…ummm…I’m not in Texas.  I’m…I’m in Juárez, Mexico.”  The words just seemed to pour out, coming rapid fire.  “I called Gramps but he’s too busy with that gold digging bitch to be bothered with me.”  He was desperate now.  “I promise.  I’ll explain everything when you get here…just …please come get me.”

Murdoch’s smile faded.  He sat up, reaching for the robe Scott had fetched from his closet.  “Where in Juárez, son?” he asked.  Before Johnny had a chance to answer, the cell phone’s call waiting signal began beeping; Jelly’s private number scrolling across the screen.  The big man stood up, shrugging into his robe; the telephone now firmly clamped against his ear.  “Jelly?”

Scott watched as his father began pacing.  Murdoch’s jaws were working; and it was clear from his expression he was not happy with what he was hearing.  He spoke up, his tone sharp.  “I can assure you, Jelly, I’ll take care of it.”  End of discussion.

Johnny stared at the receiver he held in his right hand, nervously chewing on his lower lip as he debated hanging up.  Then, realizing his father was once again on the line, he slowly exhaled.  “Dad?”

Murdoch abruptly cut in.  “I want to talk to the officer in charge, John.  Now.”  He didn’t wait for his younger son’s reply; placing his hand over the phone as he addressed his elder son.  “Your brother is in jail in Juárez.  I want you to get immediate clearance for a flight to the airport there.”  He was immediately back on the line.

Johnny stood with the telephone receiver in his hand.  He looked up as Captain Esteban slipped back into the room.  “It’s my father,” he breathed.  “He wants to talk to you…”

Esteban eyed the young man for a long moment; not taking the proffered receiver.  He reached into his shirt pocket, withdrawing the laminated, credit-card sized ID that had been in the young man’s jacket pocket when he had been carried out of the local cantina.

Scott Garrett Lancer.  It wasn’t the name the younger man had provided when he’d finally woken up.

Johnny visibly winced.  The picture on the card was his own likeness, but what had seemed so funny when he had created the phony ID wasn’t quite so funny right now.  He put his hand over the mouthpiece on the receiver; tight.  “Lancer,” he said, the words coming whisper soft.  “My name’s Johnny Lancer.”  Swallowing, he offered the older man the telephone a second time.  “My father is General Murdoch Lancer.”  When he saw the man didn’t believe him, he bent down slightly, unzipping his right pant leg and digging into the top of his right boot.  This time, he produced his military dependants ID.

Esteban frowned.   Waving Johnny away from the desk, he took the receiver and embarked what he still hoped would be profitable negotiations.  “General Lancer,” he began.

It appeared to Johnny that the Captain had actually snapped to attention.  The man had turned his back on him, but it was clear there was some very intense conversation going on.  When Esteban turned sidewise to look long and hard in his direction, the discussion had lapsed into fluid Spanish.  The younger man didn’t like much of what he was hearing from this side of the conversation, and liked it even less when the Captain pushed the speaker button and allowed him to hear what his father was saying.

Murdoch’s voice filtered from the small box.   He had reverted to English.  “That’s exactly what I am requesting, Captain.  No special favors.  Return him to his cell, and treat him exactly the same as you would any other young fool who has taken advantage of your country’s hospitality.”

Esteban was smiling when he hung up the telephone and turned to face the youth.  “You heard?” he asked, knowing damned good and well the younger man had been listening.

Johnny’s frown had turned into a petulant pout.  “Yeah.  I heard just fine.”


Scott Lancer was fully dressed and on his third cup of coffee.  He and his father were in the Great Room.  The sun was just barely peeking over the pink, eastern horizon, and he already felt as if he had put in a full day.  “And now, sir?”

The big man had just hung up the desk phone, his long fingers lingering on the receiver.  Like his son, he was dressed in civilian clothing; the black, hand-tailored shirt open at the neck, his skin still flushed.

Murdoch grimaced.  “I called in a few favors from an old contact in Juárez; Rodrigo de Saquera.  He’s taken care of things, and has arranged to have Johnny released in my custody; with a warning it won’t be so easy next time.”  His gaze shifted to his son.  “I assured him there wasn’t going to be any ‘next time’.”

Scott knew from his father’s expression that Johnny had made his last trip into Mexico; at least in this lifetime.  He took a final drink of his coffee, looking up towards the French doors as he heard the familiar whine of a small jet throttling down.  “Our chariot awaits,” he said, the words coming with gentle humor.

Murdoch rose up from his chair.  He winced a bit as his back cracked in protest.  “Jelly’s gotten himself engaged,” he began, feeling a need to confide in his son.  “The Ferris woman.  Apparently Johnny — after breaking curfew — found his Gramps and the woman together and there was a bit of a shouting match, and your brother took off.”

Scott was heading towards the front door.  He turned back, open-mouthed, to stare up at his sire.  “Found them together?” he asked; something akin to amusement — awe — in his voice.

The general frowned, and shooed his son forward.  “No, your brother did not find them together, at least not in the way you are imagining.  However, let me remind you, young man; Jelly may be old, but he’s certainly not dead.”

Scott almost choked, but managed to stifle the sound with a slight cough.  What was there, he thought, about talking with the adults in your life regarding sex?  Still, the idea of Jelly — or his father, for that matter — engaging in relations.  He felt the need to cough again.

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

Johnny had used the last of the money he had found tucked in the bottom of his boot to bribe the guard to get him a bottle of tequila.  He really didn’t want it.  It was just that he had this feeling that getting drunk on his ass right now was a really good idea.  Especially if he was lucky enough to actually pass out.  Besides, his belly was empty; he was hungry, and no amount of pleading had gotten him any food.

So he sat on the metal bunk, his back against the wall; knees drawn up to his chest.  The bottle of tequila was between his legs, and he was holding it by the neck between both hands; rotating the jug back and forth.  Chewing on his bottom lip, he thought about all the things that had happened in the last thirty-six hours.

Pardee had changed his mind about making the trip to El Paso on Sunday.  Instead, the dark-haired man had informed Johnny — who had actually crashed on the couch in Pardee’s back room — he was going to let his shop manager run the Sunday afternoon sprints.  So, with Pardee and six of his biker buddies (all of them wearing their jackets from the old days) Johnny had hit the road.

The trip itself had been uneventful, made more exciting now and again as the one-time outlaws made a game of intimidating motorists, only to make comic faces at the google-eyed children who stared at them from the back seat side windows.  There were also the impromptu races as the bikers competed against each other; swerving in and out of traffic with breath-taking ease and skill.

Johnny took a drink from the bottle.  He didn’t remember too much after they had crossed the border into Ciudad Juárez; his planned search for information about Angeline Ferris already forgotten.  Pardee had sprung for food at a back street restaurant where he seemed to be well known; feared almost.  He spoke Mexican like a native, Johnny thought, conducting several whispered conversations that even his own men weren’t privy to; and laughing, always laughing.

Pardee was, Johnny realized, older than he had first thought.  Certainly older than Scott.  There was no denying the man was in good shape, or that he was quick on his feet.  His moves were catlike at times; other times he seemed to — Johnny’s brow furrowed as he looked for the right word — slither, like a desert rattler, and just as likely to strike.   That had become obvious when the fight had broken out.  It was a quick free for all — he didn’t even recall what had started it — and then…

Johnny scratched at an unseen itch on his belly.  He looked down.  The long-sleeved shirt he was wearing under his jacket didn’t belong to him, and he didn’t even remember changing.  Even funnier, he was wearing a red t-shirt under the strange outer shirt; and he didn’t remember that either!

He shook his head, reconsidering taking another drink from the bottle.  Reaching up to scratch his ear, he saw a familiar flash of henna on his right wrist; which was now darker, and there was blood.  Shit.  Now what!  Dropping his arm, he looked harder, his eyes widening.  Oh, fuck!  Shit fuck!  Where the hell — when — had he gotten the real tattoo?

This time, Johnny took a long drag on the bottle.  He was beginning to feel a bit woozy; light-headed.  He grinned.  Great.  The tequila was finally beginning to work.  Yet another drink seemed in order.


There was the sound of shattered glass as the almost empty bottle slipped from the boy’s numb fingers and crashed against the concrete floor.  Johnny pushed himself off the cot, surprised at how long it seemed to be before his feet actually touched down.  “Hey, Pops,” he grinned.

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

Scott landed a solid ‘noogie’ against his brother’s upper right arm.  “You used a phony ID with my name on it?” he hissed.

Johnny was staring out the window, watching as the clouds seemed to split as the airplane headed north and west.  “Pfft,” he puffed.  “No big deal.”  He skewed his head a bit, regretting the move when the overhead lights seemed to intensify.  “Hardest part was findin’ a way to fake the hologram thing…”

The blond’s mouth dropped open.  He couldn’t believe it.  His younger brother was actually trying to explain the process of forgery.  “Johnny…”

Murdoch reached across the aisle, tapping his elder son smartly on the knee.  “There is no point in trying to talk to him now, Scott,” he chided.  “Believe me, if I thought for one moment he’d remember anything we discussed, I would be sitting in your seat, and you would be in mine.”

Scott couldn’t believe how calm his father was.  “Sir,” he began.

Johnny interrupted him.  “You got anything to eat, big brother?” he asked.

“No!” Scott answered, shifting his gaze back to his sibling.  “And if I did, I wouldn’t give you any!”

The brunet looked hurt, a small pout coming.  He decided he didn’t need his brother, not with the attitude.  Leaning forward, he looked across to his father.  “Pops?”

Murdoch exhaled; the paper he was reading rattling as he expelled the air.  Birth control, he thought.  If I’d had a brain in my head, I would have insisted my wife use birth control.  His lips turned downward in a deep frown as, out of the corner of his eye, he watched his normally composed elder son smack his youngest, and he reconsidered.  Both of my wives.

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

Getting Johnny off the airplane once it had landed was not an easy task.  He was like a rag doll; and at the same time — once his feet hit the tarmac — stubbornly insistent he could make it on his own.  He promptly fell on his ass.

“Take your time,” Scott encouraged, his patience restored, helping the younger man to rise, “take your time.”

Eyelashes fluttering as he tried to focus, Johnny felt himself being gently pulled to his feet.  He was standing now, but his legs didn’t seem quite ready to work.  Only his pride and his stubbornness kept him from falling, and he took a deep breath.  The queasiness took him then, and he fought to remain in control.  “I can make it,” he declared, hoping he wasn’t telling a lie.  He waved his brother away.

One step forward; a second step, another smaller one.  Two more, not quite so steady. Scott was at Johnny’s side now.  He watched his brother’s face carefully as he moved slightly forward.  He could see the paleness in the younger man’s face; the slight widening of Johnny’s eyes as he continued to try and focus.

Murdoch had hurried ahead of his sons to unlock the wide front door.  He swung the portal wide, and then stood back and waited.

Johnny’s gaze was locked firmly on his father as he willed himself to move forward.  He licked his lips, faltering slightly as he took yet another step.  His legs were failing him; becoming water beneath him, and he cursed softly under his breath as the tequila seemed to be invading every organ of his body, including his brain.  Sleep, he thought; if I could just pass out and go to sleep.

Scott bent forward, feeling the dead weight as Johnny collapsed across his shoulder.  His brother’s face flashed before him, just briefly, and it hit Scott suddenly just how young his brother looked; how young he actually was.  And — right now — how very drunk.

Murdoch stood back as Scott carried his brother through the door and then, together, they maneuvered the youth of the stairs.  Finally they got him into his bed.

Scott had just begun to pull off his brother’s boots when he heard the shrill beep of his father’s cell.  Murdoch rubbed at his right eye with the palm of his hand, the fatigue showing.  He flipped open the phone and started talking, whispering, and then moving into the hall.  He knew without asking Scott would deal with his younger brother.

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

Johnny felt the tug at his left boot, and instinctively grabbed at the pair of hands that were clawing at his ankle.  He wasn’t quite sure where he was; the smell of piss and sweat still etched in his memory.  Jail, he thought.  Wildly, he began tossing around.  “Get the fuck away from me!” he fussed.

Scott shook his head.  He could feel his blood pressure sky-rocketing, and it was a struggle to keep calm.  “You need to get undressed,” he groused, still tugging at the boot.

The brunet arched his foot, determined not to let man take his boot.  “I’ll kick the shit out of you,” he snarled.  His eyes were locked shut, the overhead light seeming to turn the thin skin his eyelids blood red.  It was like trying to block out a high noon Texas sun, and it gave him a headache.  A bigger head ache.

In spite of his brother’s stubborn effort to prevent the boot coming off, Scott succeeded.  He attacked the second boot with the same gusto.  “You are getting undressed!” he declared through clenched teeth.

Johnny grimaced and curled the toes of his right foot.  “Fuck you!”  This time he was more successful.  Until the fingers dug into his calf.  “Shit!!  Let go!”  He was still unsure of just exactly where he was, but damned certain that some pervert was trying to take liberties.  His struggles intensified.

“Dammit, Johnny,” Scott cursed.  He grappled with his brother’s boot, applying more pressure with the fingers of his right hand.  This time, he succeeded.  He tossed the boot into the corner.  Out of breath, he leaned back against the foot of the bed; composing himself.  Then, bending forward, he put both hands under his brother’s arm pits, and pulled him into a sitting position.  He inhaled, immediately regretting taking a breath, almost gagging as Johnny’s head slumped against his shoulder.  His brother reeked of cheap tequila and hot peppers.

Undeterred, the older man used one hand to start tugging at his brother’s left shirt cuff.  He was surprised when the sleeve seemed to grow beneath his fingers, Johnny’s hand disappearing briefly.  The shirt sleeve was tan, a color his younger brother abhorred, and — Scott realized — much longer than it should have been.  At some stage, it was now obvious; Johnny had managed to lose his own shirt and had apparently borrowed another.  He was certain he didn’t want to know the circumstances.  He shook his head and resumed pulling.

It was, Scott decided, not a good thing to do.  Before he could shove his sibling back down on the bed, Johnny threw up.

The blond exhaled; the warmth and the stench of regurgitated tequila producing a string of curses that would have done his younger brother proud.  “Goddamn mother fucking son of bitch!”  In spite of his anger, he eased the younger man back onto the bed and stood up.

He shrugged himself free of the offending garment, wadding it into a ball and then vindictively using it to mop his brother’s face.  Johnny had managed to pass out again.  Amazingly, there was not one mote of vomit on the younger man’s shirt.  “That’s it, little brother,” Scott hissed.  Then, a wicked grin lighting his face, he picked up the battery-powered clock radio from the bedside table, and began fiddling with the settings.  First he adjusted the F.M. dial to a classical music station — he could only hope they would be playing the Boston Pop’s version of the 1812 Overture complete with cannons — and then he turned his attention to the ‘wake up’ mode.  It didn’t take him long to manipulate the alarm, flicking the numbers until it was set to go off at 6:55 a.m.  And then, for good measure, he turned up the radio’s volume until the dial would not go any further.

Grinning, Scott carried the clock to the dresser beside the door, a good twelve feet from his brother’s bed.   Breakfast at Lancer — rain, snow, sleet, hail, or little brother’s mischief — was served at 7:00 a.m.  Precisely.   Placing the clock as far back against the wall as he could, he patted it and activated the alarm.

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

Johnny was jarred awake as a woman screamed from across the room.   Slapping at his ears with both hands, he searched for the source.  There was music; the screeching of violins and the blaring of French horns as the crescendo continued.  The shrieks were reaching a near impossible level, as if a dozen or more people were purposely scraping their fingers across a black board.

The youth scrambled up from his bed on full alert, his stomach rolling as he dropped down to the floor.  In his stockinged feet, he bolted across the room, heading for the dresser.  He picked up the radio, madly punching all the buttons, finally giving up and pulling open the battery slot.

Just as he pulled the batteries free, he saw the time.  Six fifty-five!

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

Murdoch Lancer looked up just in time to see his youngest son skid through the dining room door.  Saying nothing, he pointed a long index finger at the empty chair to his left.

Johnny saw the frown.  Avoiding his father’s eyes, he by-passed his brother, resisting the urge to smack him up beside the head, and slid into his seat.

Scott smiled across at his sibling.  “Coffee?” he asked, his voice dripping honey.  He didn’t wait for an answer, choosing instead to fill his brother’s cup.

Forgetting he wasn’t wearing his boots, Johnny slipped down in his chair and aimed a toe at his brother’s shin.  The kick resulted in a shooting pain that radiated up from his big toe to his groin, and he bit his lower lip.  When he looked up, his brother was still smiling.

Murdoch was totally aware of the sibling horse-play and decided to ignore it.  “You will eat your breakfast, John.  When you are finished, you will go upstairs, get out of those clothes, and take a shower.”  The frown appeared again.  “And then, young man, you and I will be having a very long discussion in my study.”

Johnny was staring at his coffee cup, debating taking a drink.  Instead, he opened his mouth, his words matching his disposition.  “You forgot to tell me to get dressed after the shower.  ‘Course, if you want me to show up buck naked…”

Scott cleared his throat.  He was through being angry with his little brother, quite certain his father would make up for his change in mood.  “Johnny,” he cautioned.

The brunet’s first instinct was to stick his tongue out at his elder sibling.  He changed his mind when his stomach rumbled in protest over being empty.  Reaching out, he grabbed a biscuit from the bread basket in front of his father.  Big mistake.

Murdoch face flamed a bright red.  He reached out, his fingers closing around his younger son’s now exposed wrist.  Still holding on, he raised his other hand to his lips, moistening his fingertips.  Using the damp digits, he scrubbed at the tattoo, his fingers coming away with a smear of dried blood.  The fading henna tattoo had been replaced by the real thing; blue-black ink appearing beneath his fingers.

Maria was backing through the door, a platter of freshly scrambled eggs in one hand, a jug of cold milk in the other.  A large wooden spoon was tucked in the waist band of her white apron.  She was smiling when she turned around, her lips suddenly taking a severe downturn when she spied Johnny’s bare wrist.  Immediately, the serving dish and the pitcher thumped heavily against the damask covered table.  In the next instant, the spoon was out.  Reaching across in front of her employer, she smacked the back of Johnny’s hand.  Without a word, she spun around and headed back to her domain.

Johnny wrenched free of his father’s grasp.  “Goddammit!  That fuckin’ hurt!!”  He was rubbing furiously at the back of his hand.

Murdoch raked his fingers through his hair.  “Not as much as it’s going to hurt when that tattoo is removed,” he growled.  He was determined not to lose his temper, but it was becoming more difficult with each passing second.  He glanced at his elder son and realized Scott was holding his breath.    Passing the plate of eggs to his younger son, he began to spoon a generous serving onto the boy’s plate.  “Eat,” he ordered.

Johnny stared down at the plate, his father’s comment about the tattoo being removed causing him sudden concern.  He sure in hell didn’t remember getting the tattoo, but he was pretty certain that the experience — if he had been sober — would have been painful.  And how the hell do you remove a tattoo anyway? he fretted.  Slowly, he began shaking his head.  “Not gonna do it,” he murmured.

“Excuse me,” Murdoch asked, the words whisper soft.  Assuming his son was refusing to eat, he tapped the edge of the plate with his forefinger.

Scott was studying his brother’s face; what he could see of it.  Johnny’s chin was resting on his chest; his too-long bangs effectively hiding his eyes.  “What are you not going to do?” he asked, doing a good job of keeping his tone neutral.

The brunet was still shaking his head.  “Not gettin’ the tattoo took off,” he answered.

Murdoch laughed; no humor in the sound.  “You will have the tattoo removed,” he declared.  Once more, he tapped his son’s plate with his finger.  “Eat,” he commanded.    

Johnny shoved the plate away.  “Go to hell!” he snapped.

Scott thought he felt the floor beneath his feet tremble.  With any luck, he mused, there might actually be an earthquake.

Murdoch’s words came as a mere whisper.  “Leave the table, John; now.”

Johnny shoved his chair away from the table, leaning back just enough to tip it over as he stood up.  “Wasn’t hungry anyway,” he lied.

The blond remained silent until his brother left the room.  “It’s getting worse, sir.”  He inhaled.  “All of it.”  He chose his next words very carefully.  “I’ve had men that served with me under extreme combat conditions that displayed similar behavior after we returned home…”

Murdoch raised his right hand.  “PTSD,” he interrupted.  “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”  He was quiet for a long moment.   “God only knows he’s been through enough recently…”  He shook his head.   “I’m not dismissing everything that’s occurred, son; nor am I dismissing the possibility he’s in more trouble than we realize.  What I believe, however, is that right now the most important thing is for us to work through this together.”

Not entirely convinced, Scott nodded.  “I’ve applied for compassionate leave.”  He shrugged.  “Maybe you’re right, sir.  Perhaps if we concentrate on family, on building a family here at Lancer…”  A smile played on his face; warming the blue eyes.  “Now, if we can just get Johnny to co-operate.”

There was a soft splashing sound as Murdoch refilled his coffee cup.  “He’s going to learn to cooperate, Scott.  And he’s damned well going to learn to not tell his father to go to Hell.”

Scott was dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin.  He put down the cloth, smoothing it in place.  Then, picking up two of the still warm biscuits, he pulled them apart and forked several slices of Canadian bacon from the plate at his right elbow.  “A bribe,” he said ruefully.

“Good cop, bad cop,” Murdoch retorted.  The analogy didn’t seem too farfetched.

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

Scott didn’t even bother to knock.  Johnny’s swift departure from the breakfast table after telling his father to go to Hell was more than enough to prompt the normally proper Bostonian to cast aside the usual amenities.  “Just what were you thinking, little brother?” he demanded.  He tossed the napkin full of sandwiches on the bed.

Immediately, he closed the door, leaning back against the heavy oak; an audible gasp coming from his pursed lips as he beheld his sibling.  Johnny was standing in the center of the room, head down, his right fist closed around the hem of his t-shirt, and he had just begun pulling it up.  Scott swallowed, struggling to regain his composure, torn between the urgent need to laugh or to cry.

Johnny was staring at his belly button; much the same way a toddler would stare after discovering their navel, pushing his normally flat stomach out for a better look as he poked his finger into the small indentation.  “Couldn’t figure out why my belly was so sore,” he whispered.

Scott was shaking his head.  The tattoo on Johnny’s wrist was bad enough, but this…  He stepped forward, two fingers hovering just above his brother’s exposed stomach.  Hoping what he was seeing was simply a bad dream, he blinked, twice.  It didn’t help.  The blue-inked skin art, inflamed from the freshness of the needle work, was a stark contrast to the younger man’s tanned skin.  Two large monkeys were emblazoned across Johnny’s belly; their tails uplifted, the one in the rear position poking its finger into what appeared to be the other monkey’s anus.  Only the anus wasn’t an anus.  It was Johnny’s own belly button, skillfully incorporated into the art work.  “Murdoch is going to kill you,” Scott breathed.  “And then Jelly’s going to kill you a second time.”

The brunet looked up, his blue eyes wide.  He swallowed.  He’d sobered up considerably since coming back to his room, and the headache wasn’t quite so bad.  “Jeez, Scott,” he breathed.  “I know I was drunk, but…”   He had never even undressed the night before after Scott had — he assumed it was Scott — had put him to bed; even after he’d woken up a bit to be sick for a second time.  He had finally recognized the shirt he was wearing — it was Day Pardee’s shirt — and he had kept it on in the hopes of hiding the tattoo on his wrist.  It had worked, too.  Until breakfast, anyway.   But this…  He’d been so strung out on the tequila he didn’t remember any of it!!  At least, not anyone pokin’ around on his belly!  He forced a smile he didn’t feel.  “You gonna kill me too, big brother?”

Scott laughed.  There was more dread in the sound than humor.  “No,” he answered calmly.  “I’m going down stairs, I’m going to call my C.O., and then, little brother, I’m going to ask be deployed somewhere far away — very far away — from here.  Afghanistan, maybe.  Far enough that when Murdoch starts yelling at you again, all I’m going to have to do is put on my anti-flack helmet, and hope for a near miss when the enemy returns fire.”

Johnny frowned.  “Not funny, big brother.”  Gingerly, he tapped his belly; wincing a bit.  The skin was on fire.  He hoped — prayed — there was some steel wool; maybe even some Brillo or SOS pads in the kitchen  “You gotta help me, Scott.  Before the Old Man sees it.  He about had a stroke when he saw this…”  He held up his wrist.

The blonde’s eyes narrowed.  “I tried helping you,” he muttered.  “Last night, when I attempted to undress you when I poured you into bed.  You told me — and I quote — ‘Get the fuck away from me’.”  He tapped his brother’s stomach with the back of his hand.  “Murdoch’s going to see this,” he said, no doubt at all in his words.

“Nope,” Johnny said, suddenly inspired.

 Scott snorted.  “From the time you were able to walk,” he began, “what have you always done every time you’ve taken a bath or a shower?”  He raised his hand, a sure sign he wasn’t expecting an answer.  Johnny had never been particularly modest, even as a toddler.  “You come out of the bathroom dripping water all over the place, with nothing but a towel — the smallest towel you can find — wrapped around your waist, and your belly and the cheeks of your butt exposed to God and everyone else.  It’s a habit, Johnny; it’s what you do!  As sure as I’m standing here, you’re going to take a shower some morning and traipse into the hallway, and Murdoch is going to see that…” he poked his finger at the tattoo, “… and you’re going to spend the rest of your life wishing you’d never taken a drink of tequila.”

The younger man was adamant.  “I got a plan,” he announced.  “I just need to keep him from seein’ it ‘til I turn twenty-one.”

The blond covered his face with his right hand, two fingers probing the place above his eyes where the headache was about to begin.  Johnny’s plans always ended disastrously.  It struck him then; a weird flash of discovery that suddenly intruded on his otherwise logical mind.  He wondered if it was purely coincidence that the words stupid and stubborn both started with stu.  He opened his mouth in an attempt to reason with the unreasonable, only to find himself rudely interrupted.

“Scott!”  Murdoch charged through the bedroom door, a cell phone in his right hand.  “Sam Jenkins just…”

Instinctively, Scott turned, placing himself between his father and his brother.  “Sir?” he smiled.

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.  He flipped the cover closed on the phone and shoved it into his shirt pocket.  Behind his elder son, he could see Johnny.  His youngest son was tugging at the hem of his t-shirt, pulling it down over his soiled leathers.   “What’s going on here?” he asked.

Both sons averted their eyes.  “Nothing,” Scott said, his gaze lifting to meet his father’s scrutiny head on.

The tall Scot canted his head.  He wasn’t buying it.  Determined, he shouldered past his eldest son, bulling his way to the place where Johnny was standing.  He reached out, his fingers closing around the younger man’s wrist; grimacing as he spied the tattoo they had argued about earlier that very morning.  Still holding on, he lifted his son’s hand; the t-shirt still clutched in the youth’s numb fingers.

Murdoch’s face was becoming a remarkable shade of purple.  The small blood vessel at the corner of his right eye — the one that normally lay almost unnoticeable beneath his skin — was beginning to grow.  It was also throbbing; the pulsing seeming to increase the more exposed Johnny’s belly became.  The vein was almost finger thick by the time both monkeys came in full view along with the youth’s artistically decorated navel.  “What,” he ground out, “on God’s green earth…!”  His forefinger jabbed at the still-tender tattoo.

Johnny backed up a full pace.  He was still hung-over and his mouth was cotton dry, but his nimble mind was working overtime.  He did what he would have done if his Gramps, Jelly, had asked the question: came up with what he thought was a smart and funny answer.  “Two monkeys,” he declared with no small amount of bravado, looking down to admire the artwork.  “Was gonna have ‘em put the ark up here,” he tapped his chest, just above his right breast, “then have ‘em put the animals two by two, kinda in a line…”  He marked the path back down to the long-tailed primates with his finger.

The General — Murdoch had just slipped into the military mode — was not amused.  He turned to his elder son, nailing him in place with a single cold-eyed glare.   “Did you know about this?”

Scott was smart enough, this time, not to lie.  “Not until I came in here.”

“And you didn’t call me why?” the older man snapped.

Suddenly, the Navy SEAL — the decorated Navy SEAL — felt like he was ten years old.  “He was going to hide it,” he said; his eyes screwing shut at the stupidity of what he had just said.  “I was assessing the situation,” he corrected himself.  “Attempting to figure out…” he sighed, “…how to rectify things before you found out and had him shot,” he finished.

Again, Murdoch turned back to his youngest, grabbing his wrist and holding it up.  “It was bad enough to find out that you did this,” he said, tapping the smaller tattoo with his forefinger, “and now I find out that you…”

Johnny interrupted his father’s rant.  “Didn’t know it was there,” he said, pulling the t-shirt back down.


Why, Johnny thought, were the simplest questions the hardest ones to answer?  “I was kinda…drunk,” he murmured.  “I don’t remember!”

Scott was standing behind his father, desperately making hand gestures indicating his brother should shut up.  He decided a diversion was needed.  Now.  “Sir.”  He visibly winced when his father turned to face him.  “You were saying something about Sam Jenkins?  When you first came into the room?”

Murdoch’s frown eased, but only slightly.  “I had a voice mail from Sam.  He was called in for a medical consult at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and he’s decided — since NASA is paying the freight — he’d have them fly him here to Lancer before heading back to his clinic.”  The older man actually smiled.  “It’s been a long time since we’ve been together when Sam was also free.”  Eyes on his younger son, the smile diminished completely.  “He said he was looking forward to seeing Johnny.”

The elder Lancer son was doing some fast thinking.  He reached out, looping his arm around his father’s shoulder.  “That might be a very good idea, sir,” he cajoled.  Ever the diplomat, he continued.  “You’ve already told Johnny he’s going to have the tattoo on his wrist removed.  Sam’s always up on the latest medical techniques; even those not associated with his specialty.”  He began guiding his father towards the door, talking the entire time.  “Perhaps Sam can suggest someone who can…” the hesitation was brief, “…erase my brother’s rather dubious art work…”

Murdoch had been in the military too long not to realize what his elder son was pulling.  He raised his right hand.  “Excellent strategy, son; but you can stop the bull.  I will ask Sam for his opinion.”  Then, half-turning, he addressed his youngest.  “You, young man, can consider yourself confined to your quarters.”

Johnny’s head snapped up at his father’s commanding tone.  Once again, he felt the old anger clawing at his gut: the resentment he’d always felt about his father’s status as a career military man and the way the rigid mannerisms and language spilled over into their private lives.   “Whatever!” he shot back insolently.

Murdoch’s spine went rigid.  “What!?”

Scott was again behind his father, making the usual hand signals; as if Johnny were deaf and that was the way they communicated.  He mouthed a silent I’m sorry, sir, knowing his brother could read his lips.  Mentally he was thinking ‘just do it, little brother’.

Johnny’s lips pursed into the familiar pout that made him look much younger than his actual years; his cheeks coloring.  He knew from the look on his brother’s face that Scott was warning him off; silently advising him to control his temper.  It was too late.  “I want to go back to Gramps,” he said.  He didn’t; not really.  Not as long as that gold digging bitch was still at the Texas ranch.

Murdoch reached out, his left hand coming to rest on his son’s right shoulder.  “We are not going to play this game, John,” he announced, his tone firm.  Too many of his soldiers were divorced or separated, and he was aware of the cruel intrigues that occurred when children played one parent against the other.  “You made the decision to come back here when you called and asked me to come and get you; and here you will stay.  And you will abide by the rules.  Is that understood?”

The youth’s face clouded, and it was evident from his expression he was at war with himself.  His eyes flicked again to his elder brother, hoping for some sign that wouldn’t require capitulation.  What he saw in Scott’s face was something akin to disappointment as the older man mouthed the words don’t push, Johnny.

Murdoch’s fingers tightened.  “I asked you a question, John.  I expect an answer.”

Johnny’s arms were wrapped around his chest in a tight self hug.  His head dipped and he was staring hard at the floor.  “Understood,” he murmured.  And then, because his father’s grip had tightened even more, “Sir.”  He almost choked on the word.

The Lancer patriarch nodded.  “I told you to get cleaned up,” he ordered; “take a shower and put on something presentable.  Sam’s going to be here in time for lunch, and you will be joining us at the table.”


They were assembled in the Great Room.  After hearing about Johnny’s recent escapade, Sam Jenkins had insisted they delay lunch until he concluded his examination.  He was not a happy camper.

The older man had removed his suit jacket, and had turned up the cuffs of his crisp white shirt.  He was seated on the couch, facing a shirtless Johnny, who was perched on Murdoch’s leather ottoman.  “And you had this done in Mexico?” he asked; frowning when the younger man nodded.  The air around them was pungent with the odor of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  He turned to look up at Murdoch.  “When did he have his last tetanus booster?”

Murdoch did some mental ciphering.  “He had the full routine when he went to Beijing for the Olympics; when he applied for his passport.  The time before that was when he was fourteen, and he brought home a coyote pup he thought he could tame.”

Johnny’s head came up, the surprise evident.  One more thing he could be pissed at Jelly for: the way the old coot told tales out of school.

Sam nodded.  He was digging in his medical bag.  “We’re going to do some preventive medicine,” he said, withdrawing a small kit filled with an assortment of vials that were kept cool with a chemical refrigerant.  “I’m also going to draw some blood.”

Scott watched as his brother’s shoulders slumped.  Johnny hated drugs of any kind.  He hated needles; even more after the dialysis.  That’s what had been so surprising about the tattoos.  Mentally, the blond began planning his search for whoever it was that had taken his brother to Juárez.  He was also anticipating how good it was going to feel to personally kick the man’s ass.  

Murdoch watched as Sam took a piece of rubber tubing from his bag and put it in place around Johnny’s left arm, just above the elbow; grimacing as the physician thumped the vein he was considering.  Unable to look away, he saw the needle penetrate his son’s arm; watching as the first syringe filled and was quickly replaced by a second, and then a third.  “Worst scenario, Sam?” he asked.

“Infection, some stray bug,” Jenkins shrugged.  “The quality of the,” he snorted, “art work leads me to believe the tattoos were probably done in the back room of some bar.  I doubt, since there’s little color beyond the indigo, that whoever did this used disposable needles; or made any particular effort to be even reasonably sanitary about the conditions.”  Finished drawing blood, he unknotted the rubber tube and pressed a cotton swab over the needle mark.  “Bend your arm,” he ordered.  He was already preparing a wide, latex bandage.   Gesturing for Johnny to extend his arm, he checked the cotton ball, and then secured it in place with the Band-Aid.

Wasting no time or words, the doctor prepared two syringes.  Using pre-packaged wipes, he cleaned off a spot just below Johnny’s left shoulder, pinching the flesh as he poked first one needle, and then the other, into the peaked skin.  “If you were mine,” he groused, speaking to the youth, “I’d take you out to the barn and wale the daylights out of your behind.  What you did, Johnny, was stupid beyond belief!”

The younger man visibly bristled; his anger primed by the soft laughter coming from behind him.  Scott.  Perfect, never do anything wrong, tight-assed Scott.  “I was kinda drunk!” he shot back, as if it made a difference.

“Even more stupid,” Sam snapped.  Already, he was cleaning up the clutter.  When he closed the bag, he turned once again to face his old friend.  “The tattoos can be removed.  It’s going to be expensive, and it may require more than one session, and it’s going to be painful.”

“Outpatient?” Scott asked.

Sam nodded.  “How long it takes depends on the size of the tattoo, and the ink.” his brows raised as he surveyed the two monkeys on Johnny’s stomach.  “How did you get him out of Mexico so fast?” he asked.

Murdoch grimaced.  “I called in a few favors from an old contact in Juárez; Rodrigo de Saquera.  He took care of things within a few hours, and released him in my custody; with a warning it wasn’t going to be so easy next time.”  His gaze shifted to his son.  “I assured him there wasn’t going to be any ‘next time’.”

The physician turned back to his young patient.  “You can put your shirt back on, Johnny.”  Standing up, the old man stretched; wincing as his back popped.  “I’m ready for that lunch now,” he announced.  “Maria still doing the cooking?”

Scott nodded his head.  “Grandfather keeps trying to steal her away, Sam, but she refuses his offers!  Just to be safe, though, Murdoch gave her a substantial raise.”

Murdoch was already leading the way to the dining room.  “I’d give her a share of the ranch, if that’s what it took.”  He was only half joking.

Johnny was on his feet.  He had put his shirt back on and was buttoning it up.  There was no way in Hell Maria was going to see his belly tattoo.  It had been bad enough at breakfast when she spied the one on his wrist.  His hand was still smarting from that one.

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

Life at Lancer had returned to normal.  At least, as normal as life could be in a house that was often in the midst of total chaos.

Scott winced, shaking his head in resignation at the furious pounding sound of boot heels on wood as his little brother stomped down the stairway.  Normally, Johnny enjoyed bucking the house rules and sliding down the banister, but when he was mad — and quite obviously he was — he liked to throw his whole body into his anger and raise as much ruckus as he could.  Smirking, Scott swirled the Taliskers scotch in his glass, the light amber liquid sparkling as it caught the light, and then took a sip to fortify himself against the tirade Johnny would start as soon as he entered the room.   It looked like the family outing to a restaurant was not sitting well with Johnny.  Of course here lately nothing sat well with Johnny, the smallest of things could cause ignite his fierce temper and cause impulsive reactions.

Jumping from the last tread, Johnny literally leapt into the Great room.  Scowling, he glared at his older brother and with a top to bottom sweeping motion of his hand, he indicated his attire of pressed and creased Khaki pants and a navy blue polo shirt with a wide pale blue stripe around the upper chest area.  His brown, flat heeled Justin roper boots peeked out from the hem, polished to a finish that would pass a military inspection.

“You look very nice, little brother,” Scott observed, despite the petulant pout tightening Johnny’s face.

“This looks stupid!  Who the fuck wears Khaki besides nerds and geeks,” Johnny complained, oblivious to the fact the blond Lancer was outfitted the same with the exception of his polo shirt being a jade green.

Shifting and leaning forward, Scott hid his bemused smile with the rim of his glass, taking the final sip of his drink and schooling his face to a neutral look before commenting.  “Why did you pick it out if you didn’t like it?”

Outrage raced across Johnny’s face, his mouth dropped open and then snapped shut. He protested, “I didn’t pick this shit out, Maria did!  And even worse than her pickin’ out my clothes for me and layin’ them out on the bed like I’m some kind of colorblind retard…do you know what else she did to me?”

Clearing his throat and biting the inside of his cheek to stop the smile that wanted to bloom on his face, Scott replied, “I’m sure you are about to tell me.”

“She showed up at the shootin’ range while I was target practicin’, in that pink VW convertible she drives; skidded and spun gravel when she slammed on brakes.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, she hops out that damn car rantin’ in Spanish, wearin’ her blue flowered apron and those clunky, butt ugly, white shoes.  Next thing I know she’s bustin’ off a switch from one of those quakin’ aspens; some sucker growth this long…” he measured a length with his outstretched arms and just as quickly formed a big “O” with his thumb and forefinger, “…and this thick and starts jumpin’ all over me.  She pulled me off the firin’ line by the ear!”  He paused to rub at the abused body part, sighing and sucking in a mouthful of air so he could continue his rant; thinking how damned fast the woman could move.  “She damn near tore it off.   Then she practically threw me into the car; all the while tellin’ everybody within hearin’ distance that I had to get home and take a bath to go out with my daddy!”  Johnny finished; his face as red from rage as embarrassment.  He noted the look of calm indifference on his older brother’s face and warred with the desire to snatch him by the ear and see how he liked it.

Deliberately taking the time to set his glass on the end table at his elbow, Scott turned and eyed Johnny. “Maria’s already on to your little games, brother.  She knew you were planning to hide out at the shooting range until it was too late to make it home in time for the planned outing.”

A brief smirk over his attempted duplicity peeked out of the indignant scowl marring Johnny’s face but he quickly replaced it with a dissatisfied frown.  “Well, she didn’t have to embarrass me like that in front of all those soldiers. It isn’t bad enough she keeps poppin’ me with that damned spoon of hers every time she sees me; but that switch stung like all forty and I had on long pants!” Finally done, he bent over and began rubbing the calves of his leg as though he could still feel the tingle.

Heavy thudding in a march-like cadence sounded on the staircase and soon Murdoch appeared in the Great room.  “Boys, you look nice,” their father stated as he walked by on his way to the drink cabinet.  Pouring himself a measure of scotch, he turned and added, “Aggie will be down in a few minutes.  She’s fixing her hair.”

Johnny snorted and his body stiffened at his father’ words.  //Just great! I leave Texas to get away from one gold digging bitch and now I have to deal with another one. I bet they’ve been up there humpin’ like jack rabbits all afternoon.  What’s the Hell’s wrong with these old farts now days…they must be poppin’ that  Viagra shit like vitamin pills!//

Hearing the snort from his youngest, Murdoch glared at the youth, the frown deepening when he saw, that although his son was dressed appropriately, once again he had neglected to brush his hair with anything but his fingers.  Placing his tumbler down and then reaching in his back pocket for the five inch black plastic comb he had carried since officer’s training, Murdoch approached Johnny.

“What the hell are you doin’,” Johnny complained, jerking away from his father when he stopped in front of him and began combing his hair for him.

“I’ve told you enough about this mop of hair,” Murdoch gritted out between clenched teeth.  “Here are your choices.  One, you can comb it yourself, two, I’ll comb it for you, or three, get a short haircut that doesn’t require any work other than washing it.  Make a choice and live with it because I assure you, you aren’t leaving this house looking thrown away!”

Grabbing the comb from his father’s hand, Johnny stomped over to a mirror hanging on the wall and began snatching the comb through his disheveled and tangled locks. His face grew surlier from the pain of his own rough treatment.  Spying Scott’s reflection and the amusement he was fighting to contain pushed Johnny’s temper over the edge and he exploded, “What’s so fuckin’ funny, Scott?”

“You are, little brother.  Your actions just now didn’t hurt anyone but you,” Scott pointed out.

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Aggie announced as she gracefully entered the room, still patting her hair in place. “Have we decided where we’re going yet?”

Ushering everyone towards the door, Murdoch replied, “We can decide once we get in the car.”

Murdoch’s black Jeep Commander sat in front of the house, the late day sun glinting off the mirror like shine from the polish and detailing it had received that afternoon.  Murdoch would be driving and Aggie claimed the seat next to him.  Scott took the seat behind his father and Johnny in back of Aggie.  The well maintained vehicle cranked right up and as they were rolling under the Lancer arch Murdoch asked, “Anyone have any suggestions for where we should go?”

“The Red Lobster in Green River is really good,” Aggie replied.

“No, thank you,” Johnny snorted. “I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that looks like an over-sized bug!”

Aggie laughed, refusing to rise to Johnny’s bait.  “You’re right; they do look like bugs, but I can eat anything coated in enough butter.”

Catching Johnny’s eye in the rear view mirror, Murdoch frowned at him, realizing Johnny was going to be difficult because he didn’t want to come. In irritation he pressed the gas pedal harder, picking up speed.  “How about Cagney’s Place?  It’s a new steak house and they grill them to perfection.”

Crinkling his nose and rolling his eyes, Johnny stated, “I’ve had beef every day since I been here. If I have to eat one more piece I’m going to start mooing.  I’m gonna wake up some mornin’ and find I’ve grown horns and my feet have turned to hooves.”

Murdoch snorted.  “Don’t worry; your long hair will hide the horns and your boots will cover the hooves,” he shot back sarcastically, again picking up speed.

“Ha ha,” Johnny replied, “Then it would be just my luck you’d fire up the brandin’ iron and sear my ass with it.”

The general turned back briefly to glare at his son. “Maybe I’ll burn your backside for that language, young man!  Do I need to remind you there is a lady present?” he snapped as the Jeep lurched into high gear.

Hoping to avert a verbal altercation between his brother and father, Scott called upon a game he and Johnny played for years.  “I know, let’s find a nice little Chinese restaurant. Have some wonton soup…”

Johnny’s eyes twinkled as he shifted towards his brother and slapped him lightly on the chest.  “Maybe a little eggroll?”

“Ahhh,” Scott sighed, raising a finger and pointing up, “Perhaps some chicken and mushrooms?”

Squinting his eyes, pulling his bottom lip in and over his lower teeth and raising his top lip and extending his upper teeth outward so he looked buck-toothed, Johnny quipped in a nasally whine, “You want Egg Foo Yong?”

Getting into the spirit of the game, Scott suggested, “Perhaps we’ll read as we eat.  There’s a new book out called Brown Spots on the Wall by Who Flung Poo.”

Chortling, Johnny returned with, “Brown Log in the River by Isa Turd.”

“What’s that Smell by Who Stepped In Doo,” suggested Aggie from the front seat; sending the totally surprised brothers into choked fits of laughter.

Whipping his head around, Murdoch’s shocked eyes glared at Aggie Conway before admonishing his boys.  “We’ll go for Chinese,” he muttered, shaking his head in exasperation; wondering whatever had possessed him when he suggested eating out.  Obviously, it had been a mistake since his sons had reverted to being idiotic juveniles.  It didn’t help that Aggie had egged them on.   “But I’ve heard enough of the jokes about fecal matter…understand?” he ground out, his eyebrows rising all the way to his hairline; wrinkling his forehead.  

“Yes, sir,” Johnny agreed, “we understand you don’t want to hear anymore poo talk.”  Turning and catching his brother’s attention, Johnny winked and then began speaking in Chinese, a language Scott had taught him so they could converse without anyone else in their family understanding what they were talking about.  – -“Hey Scott , have you read The Yellow River by I.P. Daily?”- –

Stifling a laugh, Scott replied, – -“No, but I have read Rusty Bed Springs by I.P. Freely.”- –

Moisture welled in Johnny’s eyes as between breathless giggles he responded with, – – “Falling off a Cliff by Eileen Dover.”

Scott retorted, – -“Well, The Complete Proctologist’s Handbook by Ben Dover, must have been written by her husband”- –

Johnny sat up straight and with a serious expression and speculated, – – “And I bet ‘Under the Bleachers by Seymour Butts’ was one of his references.”

Scott nodded in agreement, pursing his lips to break his wide grin, – -“Ah yes, that one and Practical Proctology by Bea Hind.”- –

Collapsing on each other’s shoulders in laughter the brothers snapped to attention when their father’s voice growled at them from the front seat.  “I’m sure if I knew what you boys were saying you’d be in more trouble than you cared to be.  In fact, I see miles and miles of stringing fence wire in your futures, if you don’t stop with the Whinese,” Murdoch threatened, the tight set of his jaw causing his cheeks to expand as they rounded upward.  He took a deep breath, speaking the next words as if he were talking to a pair of rambunctious five-year-olds.  “I have a wonderful suggestion.  Why don’t we see how quiet we can be until we get to Chan’s Garden?”  Though it was phrased as a question, it was without a doubt an order.

Johnny snickered.  “Let’s whisper, Scott.  The old man is as hard of hearing as a statute with stone ears,” he teased, looking up in time to catch his father’s eyes watching him intently in the rear view mirror

“But I read lips very well, young man!”  Murdoch growled, his rigid posture telling Johnny to straighten up; and his lead foot pushing the accelerator lower.

The silence was all too brief.  Johnny was the first to break it.  “Hey, Scott?” he asked.

The blond had been looking out the window; watching the passing landscape.  “Yes, Johnny,” he answered absently.

“You ever think about goin’ into space,” the younger man asked, his tone serious.  “You know, out there?”  He pointed a long finger as the stars that were just beginning to show in the evening sky.

Scott considered the question for a heartbeat.  “I don’t know, brother.  I’ve always preferred my feet firmly planted on the ground,” he smiled, “even if it’s at the bottom of some bay or reef.”  He turned slightly in his seat, facing his brother.

Murdoch had been observing his sons in the rearview mirror; pleased with the direction the conversation had taken.  He was about to speak when Johnny spoke up again.

“I’ve been thinkin’,” the youth drawled.  “Doc Jenkins is still doin’ consultin’ work for NASA, right?”

Impressed that his brother remembered, Scott nodded his head.  “At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,” he answered.  “Houston, too, I understand.”

Johnny was lounging back in his seat.  “I think I’ll e-mail ‘im,” he said.  He paused, chewing a bit on his lower lip.  “See if he can’t send me some pictures of Uranus.”  Giving up, he collapsed into another fit of laughter; covering his head with his arms as his brother began to box his ears.

The Jeep immediately began to slow down as Murdoch shifted his foot from the gas pedal to the brake.   There was a sudden screeching as the big car skidded to a complete stop.

Both Lancer boys came forward in their seats; Johnny unbuckling and turning sideways as he lifted himself up slightly from his seat and stared — in unabashed awe — at the extraordinary and still smoking strips of black rubber that marred the concrete highway.  “Whoa,” he breathed, clearly impressed.

Murdoch was almost sideways in his seat.  “Not one word,” he growled through clenched teeth.  “Not one more word!”  He jabbed a long finger at his youngest.  “And buckle that damned seat belt!!”

The trip resumed, Murdoch accelerating until they were traveling at precisely eight miles above the legal limit.

Aggie reached out, her left hand coming to rest gently on Murdoch’s right forearm.  “You might want to slow down or you’re going to fly by Chan’s Garden,” she observed quietly as they approached the turn for the restaurant; which was the next hard right.

Murdoch whipped the Commander into the first available space, killed the engine and everyone began to open the doors and get out.  He jumped when the slamming of the doors startled a cat rummaging in a trash container and it yeowed and scurried away, right between his legs.

Johnny turned to Scott as they stepped up on the sidewalk to the entrance and quipped, “Uh oh…somebody’s supper just ran off.”

Reaching out a long arm and grasping Johnny by the neck, Murdoch guided him forward, giving the youth a slight squeeze and shake; bending his head down he whispered in Johnny’s ear as he opened the door, “Don’t forget what I said in the Jeep or there will be bales and bales of barbed wire in your foreseeable future.”

A hostess greeted them and showed them to a table in a glassed in atrium set up like a Chinese water garden. Once they were seated she recited the specials and asked if they would like a few minutes to decide what they wanted or were they ready to order.

Johnny piped right up, putting on his best forlorn face, his shoulders slumping.  “I can’t order what I want because Dad won’t let me.”

Murdoch’s hand stalled as he was reaching for a menu and he turned to face Johnny, the vein in his temple beginning to turn a deeper blue as it enlarged. “I never said you couldn’t order!”

Poking his bottom lip out and shaking his head sagely, his silky hair falling into his eyes so that he had to brush it away, Johnny replied, “But I’ll be stringing fences if I tell them what I want.”

The tall Scot leaned in towards his younger son, his voice a harsh whisper.  “Johnny, just give the waitress your damn order, if you already know what you what,” Murdoch huffed, as he rubbed the vein at his temple that was now throbbing.

“Okay,” Johnny retorted, an insolent smirk lighting his eyes with mischief, “I’ll take the Poo Poo platter.”

Johnny’s choice caused Scott to choke on his sip of water, while Aggie grabbed a napkin and pressed it to her lips, her shoulders shaking in laughter as she watched Murdoch clamp his hand over his mouth as he battled the inclination to roar at his rebellious youngest.

Scott stopped laughing long enough to tap his brother’s arm.  “Johnny, you know what you just ordered is considered an appetizer,” he scolded.  The idea of his brother being served a dish that included a small brazier with real fire was a tad more than unsettling; the thought of Johnny grilling meat mounted on flammable, wooden shish-kabob sticks painting vivid images in his mind.

The brunet snickered.  “So?”  He leaned in to his brother.  “I’ll just get an extra plate, take a little bit from everyone else, and I’ll be fine.”  The grin tugging at the corners of his mouth erupted into a full, Cheshire cat smile.  “‘Sides,” he drawled, the words suddenly all Texas, “we’re all gonna be hungry in an hour, anyway.”  Just as quickly, the smile turned upside down.  “Hey.  You see any chocolate on that menu?” he asked.  “Or dessert?”

In spite of his earlier bad mood, Murdoch smiled.  “I’m sure you can survive one meal without any sweets,” he chided.  “And you will not be taking any food from my plate.”  Not to mention the last thing we need is you hyped up on sugar and caffeine. 

Johnny settled down for all of five minutes as the others placed their orders.  Murdoch decided on General Tso’s Chicken.  Aggie chose Chow Mein with a side of crab Rangoon’s to share with the others.  Scott selected Sesame Chicken and asked for a full basket of fortune cookies to munch on while they waited.

The waitress stepped away and came back with the fried cookie treats, admonishing the Lancer brothers not to eat so many that they ruined their appetite.

Grabbing a cellophane wrapped cookie, Scott pulled the plastic apart and dropped the cookie in his hand, breaking it open as he pretended to read.  He turned to Johnny. “Oops. I believe I opened yours by mistake.  This is definitely your fortune. It says, ‘to be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and call whatever you hit the target’.”

Not to be out done, Johnny snatched one and ripped it open.  Breaking it apart, he scanned the paper, his eyes growing wide in surprise.   In a breathy voice, barely suppressing the laughter, he informed Scott:  “And I sure got yours, Navy boy!  It reads:  ‘if your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it’.”

The arrival of the food stopped the levity as everyone dug into their food hungrily.  The meal passed in silence, Aggie surrendering first and pushing her plate away.  Scott was next.  Finally, only Johnny and his father were still eating.  Sneakily, Johnny leaned across the table, intent on spearing the one green vegetable he actually liked: a perfect floret of steamed broccoli that looked really good.  The only problem was it was on his father’s plate.  Murdoch and Aggie were in quiet conversation; almost whispering, and when Murdoch turned and canted his head towards the woman, Johnny made his move.  He harpooned the piece of vegetable and immediately brought it to his own mouth.

Murdoch caught him mid chew.  “John,” he chided; his tone a clear indication he was not pleased.

Johnny took the partially chewed piece of broccoli out of his mouth.  “You want it back?” he asked innocently.

“I most certainly do not!” the older man answered.

The disputed piece of vegetable promptly disappeared into the younger man’s mouth.  “You’ll thank me later, Dad,” he said, his manner serious.  Since his father was sitting rock still, he helped himself to more green.  “I mean it ain’t like we don’t all remember what happened when Maria made that Broccoli Cheese Bake last week.”

Scott slipped down in his seat; seriously wishing he had ordered a pitcher of Mai Tai’s.   “Johnny,” he warned.

His face radiating complete innocence, Johnny faced his sibling.  “What?”

Murdoch had resumed eating, intent on regaining control of the situation.  He failed completely when Johnny bent forward to say something to Aggie Conway.  The brunet had lowered his voice.  “He keeps on eatin’ that stuff, ma’am, we’ll never make it home without wishin’ he had some gas masks stashed in that Jeep!”  For effect, he pinched his nose.

With as much dignity as he could muster, Murdoch Lancer stood up.  “Scott, please take your brother out to the car.  Now.”

Both Lancer boys were in the back seat of the Commander when Murdoch escorted Aggie to the parking lot.  Without saying anything to either of his sons, he helped the woman into her seat and then circled around the front of the car to take his place behind the wheel.

They were less than five miles from the ranch when Scott noticed Johnny shifting in his seat; a cagey look appearing on his younger brother’s face.  Purposely, Johnny tilted sideways in his seat, his left butt cheek rising slightly.  There was absolutely no noise.

The stench was most foul.

Scott quickly pushed the switch to activate the power window on his side, immediately assuming the position of a hound about to hang his head out the opening; but not before smacking his brother’s ass.  “Sir,” he said, realizing the odor hadn’t quite reached the front seat, “You might want to lower the windows.”

Murdoch instantly hit the button; hearing the whirr as Aggie did the same on her side.  His eyes instantly went to the rear view mirror in search of his younger son, and his right hand lifted to adjust the glass.  “John,” he growled, finally catching a glimpse of the teenager.  In the back seat, hunched against the passenger door with his face buried against his crooked arm, Johnny appeared to be sleeping.

Scott knew better.   He could feel the subtle tremble of the well-cushioned back seat and knew damned good and well his brother was laughing.

Grinding his teeth so hard his jaw squeaked and the muscles of his face undulated; Murdoch silently counted to ten and decided rather than expose Aggie to the drama of one of his and Johnny’s discussions, he would wait for the privacy of Johnny’s room, which was exactly where the young man would be going as soon as they got home. The tension mounted as the ride continued, with Murdoch lost in the dark thoughts of the appropriate punishment to make Johnny sorry for his actions and not just sorry he was caught.   The only sound in the Jeep was the rush of the wind through the open windows as the vehicle sped the last few miles to the ranch.

Pulling up next to Aggie’s white Suburban, parked next to the multi-car garage which had been built next to the hacienda in the 1980s, Murdoch braked and shifted into park.  Before he could even turn the key to kill the engine, Johnny started opening his door.

Reaching between the seats, Murdoch’s long arm snagged his youngest son’s wrist.  “Not so fast, young man!  You go to your room, right now.  No detours to the barn, the Great Room, or kitchen.  When I come in, you had better be in your room!”  The indolent look on Johnny’s face as he turned to face his father fueled the older man’s temper and he tightened his grip, his long fingers putting enough pressure on the younger man’s wrist to cause him to wince.  Noticing the slight indication of pain, Murdoch dropped Johnny’s arm as though it were a hot coal, and then muttered, “Johnny, so help me God…”

Cutting his father off before he could finish his threat, Johnny spat, “I ain’t deaf, I heard you!  I’m goin’ straight to my room,” he stated apathetically as he tenderly rubbed his left wrist with his right hand.  Pushing the door fully open, Johnny stepped out and maliciously tried to slam it shut, but his seat belt was hanging out and the door merely made a thudding noise as the metal of the buckle kept it from catching the latch lock and closing.

Scott groaned as he heard his father hiss in anger about the rough treatment of his beloved Commander.  He glared at his little brother as he peeked in the car to gauge their father’s reaction.  Murdoch was grasping the steering wheel in a white knuckle grip and deep breathing.  Looking at Johnny, Scott shook his head and heatedly whispered, “Lay the shovel down, little brother, you’re only digging yourself in deeper.”

Murdoch’s bellow, when it sounded, was like the blast of an atomic bomb going off, the only thing missing was a mushroom cloud overhead.  “JOHN MADRID LANCER!! You will march yourself, double time, to your quarters; and you stay there until I calm down enough not to kill you! NOW GO!”

Johnny stood frozen in place, paling slightly when his father exploded out of the car.  It was one thing to stand his ground with Gramps and try to cajole him into a better mood: Gramps was small in stature and had never really done anything more than lightly dust the seat of his pants when he was bad.  However, his father was another story.  At six-foot five, broad of shoulder and as wide-chested as a mountain gorilla, his Old Man’s sheer stand-out-in-a-crowd bigness was extremely intimidating.

There had been a time or two in the not so distant past when his Dad had blistered his behind good and proper; and right now there was every indication in just might happen again.

As his father moved around the front of the Jeep, Johnny flew into motion.  Taking off around the backend of the vehicle, he dashed for the front door, slammed it open and was half-way up the stairs by the time Scott and Aggie exited the Commander.  The door was standing wide open and Maria could be heard loudly admonishing Johnny not to run in the house as the others approached the entrance.   

“Murdoch, calm down,” Aggie advised, as she threaded her arm through his and felt the rigid tension of a very mad father.  “Let’s go inside and have a drink; give yourself some time to mellow out before you deal with your son.  I’m pleading with you to remember this is a very new situation for Johnny; he’s just testing his limits and boundaries.  You can rein him in without breaking his spirit, you know.”

Scott decided to add his own two cents.  Anything to avoid his brother’s demise.  “Sir, Johnny isn’t really used to social situations with adults.  Basically, he hangs out with kids his own age, and well…” mirth lit Scott’s eyes as he paused and rubbed thoughtfully at his chin, “Johnny was just being a normal, aggravating, smart mouthed teenager.”

The three adults continued their discussion as they enjoyed sipping drinks, while upstairs Johnny decided to burn off his nervous energy by using his Wii Fitness balance board with his Prizefighter game.  By the time Murdoch had cooled off enough to go talk to him, Johnny had managed to work up a good sweat.

The sounds of grunts, harsh breathing and other inarticulate noises greeted Murdoch as he paused at Johnny’s door.  Curious, he quietly pushed the door open and watched in fascination as Johnny boxed with an animated opponent on his large screen TV.  He grinned in pleasure as he realized this was the Wii Fitness games he had bought Johnny for Christmas after Jelly assured him it was Johnny’s one heart’s desire.  He had been reluctant to buy it as he felt video games were brain and fitness rotting devices, but Jelly had explained this was an interactive style requiring you to exercise your mind as well as your body.

The sight of Johnny, bobbing and weaving while maintaining his balance on the board, his arms thrusting, jabbing and reaching outward as he threw his punches, could only be described as graceful beauty.  Sweat glistened on his bare back, the muscles over his shoulder blades undulating and rippling as he worked his arms.  Beads of moisture clung to the ends of his hair, turning loose to sail away in glittering flight when Johnny snapped his head around and then turned his body, sensing that he was being observed from behind.

Sweat laden curls framed Johnny’s face, softening his appearance, making him look younger than his eighteen years. Large blue eyes warily watched his approach, causing Murdoch to wince at seeing distrust in any form on his youngest son’s face.   Striding across the room to the rocker by the bed — the chair a visual reminder this room had once been Johnny’s nursery — Murdoch eased down into it, and then motioned towards the bed.  “Johnny, turn that off and have a seat there,” he instructed.

The agile movements Murdoch had witnessed when he first entered the room were replaced by stiff almost mechanical actions and a mounting tension as Johnny silently ended his game.  A petulant pout was firmly in place on the teen’s face when he dropped down onto his mattress, shooting a hard glare at his father before wrapping his arms around his torso in a tight self-hug and then dropping his chin to rest against his chest.

Murdoch sighed over the blatant display of surly attitude.  He felt the calm he had finally been able to achieve while downstairs begin to slip away.  His stomach churned as he wondered what kind of abnormality he had that made him feel so churlish and mean every time he tried to correct or guide Johnny.  He was a five star General; during his career he had whipped thousands of raw recruits into order-following men of discipline.  He sucked in his breath sharply when a quick view of Johnny’s soulful blue eyes connected with his.  Eyes filled with love but shadowed by the specter of distrust, his son was still warring with the fear that he would somehow be rejected.

Clasping his hands and resting them on his stomach, and then licking lips that had suddenly gone dry from nerves, Murdoch spoke, the words coming softly. “Johnny, we need to discuss your behavior this evening.  I realize this situation — your current living arrangement — is very different from your life in a small Texas town.  However, I refuse to believe — despite those circumstances — that Jelly didn’t take time to teach you basic etiquette.”

“There you go blamin’ Gramps just like you always do,” Johnny snapped, his head coming up as he stared in hard at his father in open defiance.  “It’s not his fault y’all are so uptight you don’t know how to relax or joke around with each other.  I ain’t never seen the beat in my life of people so afraid to act human.”

Feeling his face burn red as the anger he fought so hard to keep at bay ignited on his tongue and spilled out of his mouth, Murdoch barked, “I did not blame Jelly for anything!  I said I refused to believe he didn’t, that’s a big difference.  It’s one thing to act human, as you call it, in the comfort and privacy of your home, or among your peers; but it’s quite another to do it in public or in mixed company!  Joking about fecal matter, flatulence and body parts is not appropriate with an audience, especially when a lady is present.”

Johnny stared across at his father.   “I don’t see why you’re makin’ such big fuckin’ deal about it!  It’s just human nature! Me and my friends tease each other about it all the time. Besides, Aggie joined in too, if you’d care to remember.  And I got news for you!  Everybody farts, and shits too,” he argued, ignoring the signs of extreme irritation coloring his father’s face.

Pressing his tongue against the back of his front teeth in an effort to choose his words wisely before speaking, Murdoch leaned forward, and in a tightly annoyed voice said, “You might feel quite at ease joking with your young friends about bodily functions; but I repeat: it is not polite, appropriate or proper in front of a lady, especially one you aren’t related to!”

Rolling his eyes and snorting derisively, Johnny grunted “What lady!?  Hell, you an’ Aggie were up here all afternoon getting’ your rocks off.  I hardly think…”

The tall Scot, totally forgetting his intentions of handling this situation with calm resolve, exploded from the chair so fast it rocked back and hit the wall. Murdoch towered over his son, his arms rigid against his sides as he fought the urge to throttle his youngest.  “THAT’S ENOUGH!  This is not a discussion or debate!  In this world,” he jabbed a finger at the floor, “my word is law, young man, and I’m telling you right now there will be no more speaking of, either in a joking or non-joking manner, the topics of private bodily functions, and or the results or products of said functions,” he roared, his fury heating his temper beyond melting to flash point.  The face that stared back at him was cloaked in a mask of cold indifference.  Cupping his right hand against the nape of the youth’s neck and drawing him close, he continued.  “Let me make it perfectly clear in your vernacular.  There will be no mention of shitting, farting, or fucking… as nouns or actions.”

Shocked and somewhat startled by the enraged man’s tone, and just a little too prideful to back down in the face of such a show of power and authority; Johnny sealed his fate with his next argument.  “God damn, Dad, loosen up!!  It’s the fucking twenty-first century, and you need to get with it!  Hell, just try lookin’ at things on the internet instead of always havin’ your nose stuck in that fuckin’ Military History Channel.”  He snorted.  “Patton 360.  Who gives a shit!  Check out FaceBook, or somethin’; see how real live people do things for a change!”

Murdoch seemed to grow a few inches taller as his back went ramrod straight.  He went into full in-your-face rant mode, a combination of all the drill instructors he had ever seen in action.  Murdoch bent and pushed his face nose to nose with Johnny; spit flying as he bellowed in the youth’s face, “You,” he shouted, poking his son’s chest with a rigid forefinger, “are confined to your quarters until I tell you different.  The Harley will be parked.  Since you find yourself so enamored with fecal matter, beginning tomorrow, you will use a shovel and wheelbarrow to remove the dirt from the old pigpen.  And — since it appears you’ve apparently learned this attitude from your on-line surfing — you can kiss your internet goodbye!”  Storming over to the desk, he disconnected the laptop, closed it and put it under his arm and stomped out the door; slamming it shut.

Pulling out his iphone, Johnny bolted upright when the door banged back open and his father’s large hand snatched the unit.  “Until you learn how to conduct yourself appropriately around people, you need to keep to yourself.  No talking on the phone.  In fact, don’t even attempt to come down stairs until I send for you.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Not by the stairs, not through the windows, not by shimmying off one of the balconies.”  He took a deep breath; certain he had covered all the bases, and continued.    “Do you understand me?”  Murdoch paused long enough to grab the Harley’s keys off the dresser top.  After taking two steps out the door he whirled around and added, “And clean up this damn room!  You will do as I say!”

“Do as you say…more like order,” Johnny muttered as he kicked the door shut, that his father had left opened, after his second departure.

Stomping across the floor, Johnny slung himself down on the bed, determined to ignore the clutter.  He hated cleaning his room. Gramps always bitched about it but eventually the old guy would give in and straighten it for him.  Johnny figured out a long time ago those kinds of things made Jelly feel needed.  The sweet old guy had a very strong mother hen complex and — truth be told — there was security and warmth in being the recipient of it.  Flopping over onto his stomach, Johnny’s eyes were drawn to his night table and the framed photo of him and Jelly taken at the Beijing Games.  Jelly’s chest was stuck out like a strutting banty rooster, his face glowed young with pride despite the white whiskers adorning it.  Unaccustomed moisture pooled in Johnny’s eyes at the pangs of longing that constricted his heart.  If he hadn’t screwed things up with his Gramps — if that fuckin’ bitch hadn’t been around — by now he would be enjoying a plate of the old man’s famous chewy molasses cookies and a tall glass of cold milk.  Sighing, the youth pressed his face into his pillow; holding back the tears and the memories, and his eyes slid closed.

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

He woke himself up wiping drool from his chin.  Sitting up, Johnny scrubbed at his face and squinted at the darkness of his room.  The only light was the moonbeams falling across the floor making the mounds of discarded clothes look like dark shadowy mountain ranges.  His stomach growled reminding him his fill of Chinese food was well past worn off.  Looking at the clock he noted it was one o’clock in the morning.    He wanted to go downstairs and get a snack but his father’s words echoed in his head, especially his last ones, ‘you will do as I say.’

A smirk grew across Johnny’s face as his agile mind worked a solution to his predicament, where upon he could heed the literal context of his father’s words.  Rushing around his room he gathered up all his clothes that were scattered on the floor, including his leathers and boots.  Opening his door he tiptoed quietly with his armload of laundry, across the hall to the bathroom and slipped in.  He dropped the clothes and dressed in his leathers quickly, giggling nervously when he finished and realized he had been holding his breath.

“Okay,” Johnny whispered, “I’m ready to act appropriately around other people so I’ll be takin’ my leave now and not by the stairs, window or balcony.”  Eyeing the wicker chair that sat under the laundry chute, Johnny grabbed up his pile of clothes and then stepped up into the seat.  Pulling the chute door down he tossed his clothes in and then maneuvered himself in as well.  It was a smooth and exhilarating ride, feet first through the slick metal tunnel. He landed softly in the wheeled laundry cart parked beneath the chutes; the long shafts that converged from various points in the house to end in the large laundry off the pantry.  The cart rolled a couple of inches from the force of his moving weight.  The wheels squeaked in protest, sounding siren loud in the dead quiet of night and causing Johnny to cringe.

Climbing out of the laundry bin, Johnny crept to the exit door that led to the side yard.  Carefully pulling the door open and then gently closing it, he turned and dashed across the ground, hiding in the moon shadows until he reached the barn.  Gleefully, he thought of the five hour head start he would have on his father, knowing the Old Man wouldn’t rise until six o’clock. He knew he needed to make the most of time because there was no doubt in his mind his father and brother would spare no resource in hunting him down.

Easing himself through the sliding doors, Johnny entered the old barn; comforted by familiar smells.  Long ago, the big barn had been converted to a garage and shop; before Murdoch had ordered construction of the hacienda style, six-car garage.  The Old Man had a thing about that, the youth mused; keeping the house and the out-buildings true to the original Spanish style architecture.  Even the utilities were buried.

The boy grinned.  From the ridge above the main hacienda, Lancer appeared just as it had looked more than a hundred years ago; a working ranch with natural and man-made ponds and acres of pasture land.  It was only from the air that the secret parts of the ranch were visible; and then only when you knew what to look for.

Johnny had seen Lancer from the air, many times.  He knew exactly what lay in the high country nestled within the mountains.  The shooting range was there; along with a survival training site that extended well into the most rugged parts of the terrain.  There was also a landing strip capable of handling C-40 transports, which oft time carried jumpers into the California desert for night-time drops.

The soft sensation of a cat rubbing against his leg brought the young man back to the here and now.  He reached down, giving the gray tabby a scratch as he surveyed the interior of the barn.  His eyes were still adjusting to the dim interior, the only light coming through the windows from the outside yard light that illuminated the back door of the barn.

Spying the Harley, he headed toward the bike, the fingers of his right hand digging into his pockets for keys, he realized, were no longer there.  “Shit!” he cursed.  “This is just fuckin’ great,” he muttered.  And then he smiled.

Just beyond where he was standing was the shrouded, ghost like outline of his brother’s car, the 1958, black Porsche Carrera GT Speedster Scott Lancer, when time and opportunity allowed, raced.  A two seater, the flashy little convertible was capable of high speeds on the highway, and a hug-curving vehicle when driven in the mountains.  And Johnny knew exactly where the extra key was hidden.

Laughing, the brunet headed for the car.  He reached out, loosening the straps holding the car cover in place, and with a great flourish pulled it back.  Dumping the tarp in a heap beside the driver’s side door, he hopped into the front seat; pushed in the clutch, and put the car in neutral.  Just as nimbly, he jumped out.

Quickly, he padded across the concrete floor; activating the electronic door opener.  The switch had a control that allowed him to adjust the speed; and he grimaced a bit as the large rollers began their sidewise track, the twin doors jerking a bit before opening.  He worked the switch deftly; allowing the doors to separate just wide enough to allow for the car to pass through.

Going back to the car, he grabbed the steering wheel, pushing the car forward onto the tarmac beyond.  Once he was outside the barn, without opening the door, he hopped back into the vehicle.  The extra set of keys was inside the leather pocket on the front door, and he fished them out.

He cranked the ignition, smiling a bit as the finely tuned engine came alive; easing in the clutch and smoothly shifting into first gear.  Although it was tempting to peel out, he pressed the accelerator gently; heading out across the asphalt slowly towards the back road leading to the far ridge.

Scott was going to be pissed; but it didn’t matter.  Johnny had already made up his mind.  He was outta here.  The Old Man could take all his rules and shove them right up his ass.

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

“Your brother is gone,” Murdoch growled, the words coming through clenched teeth.  It was clear from his face he was talking about something more serious than just being absent from the house.  “I went to his room to wake him for breakfast, and his bed wasn’t slept in.”  He inhaled.  “His helmet and his leathers were gone, too.”

Scott’s face clouded.  “I did some work on the Harley,” he announced.  “In case he had a spare key.  It’s not like he could just jump on the bike, turn the ignition and…”

“He didn’t take the Harley,” Murdoch interrupted.

The blond smiled; thinking of how angry his brother must have been when he found the carburetor missing.  “Not your Jeep, sir?  Or one of the other ranch vehicles?”  Lancer had an assortment of utility vehicles, from four-wheelers to crew cab pickups.  They never locked the cars, and the keys were always in the ignition.

“Not a ranch vehicle,” Murdoch answered.  He was really dreading the next.  “He took your car, Scott.  More specifically, your Porsche.”

Scott face drained completely of color.  On his twenty-first birthday — celebrated at the ranch — Harlan Garrett had presented him with the keys to a mint condition 1958 Porsche Carrera GT Speedster; jet black with a black leather interior and a custom roll bar.  The two-seater coupe, a sleek little convertible with only 28,000 miles on it when he received it, qualified as Scott’s one great obsession.  He raced the car competitively, every chance he got; and had the trophies to prove how passionate he was about excelling.  “I’ll kill him,” he muttered.  Johnny had been relentless in his outright begging and wheedling in his attempt to get the keys for a trial spin. ‘C’mon, big brother.  Just let me back it into the barn…’   Scott had been just as stubborn in his adamant refusal.  ‘When pigs fly, Johnny…’

Murdoch smiled; the grin fading into a proper frown when his elder son turned to face him.  “He probably pushed it out the back door of the barn, Scott; until he got far enough from the house we couldn’t hear him.”

The blonde’s complexion had returned to normal and he was actually grinning.  “The car has a GPS locator, an anti-theft device.”  He blushed a bit when he met his father’s gaze; knowing Murdoch had thought him rather anal retentive about his need — in spite of the racing — to keep the automobile pristine and in its original condition.  The only other addition to the car had been harness-styled seat belts; a requirement on the race circuit.   “It’s just a chip,” he admitted, “something NCIS developed.  Very unobtrusive,” he measured with his thumb and forefinger, “solar powered.  It’s attached in the screw hole on one of the mirror mounts.”

“And your brother doesn’t know,” Murdoch surmised.

“Nope!” Scott answered triumphantly.  “Not a clue.”  Sucking in, he dug into his waist band and withdrew his cell.  Using autodial, he tapped in a brief text message, watching the screen as he waited for the reply.  “Holcomb Valley,” he laughed, “Big Bear Lake!”

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

Johnny stood at the bar, his fake I.D. at his elbow.  He was nursing a drink; a tumbler of Scotch, wondering what the Hell his father thought was so special the brew.  It not only smelled like wood, it tasted like shit.

He sighed.  It was the off-season in Big Bear, sort of; and he didn’t even know why he had chosen this place to hide.  He’d snuck off like some ten-year old running away from home after everyone else had turned in; only to realize his father had taken the keys to the Harley.  So he stole the Porsche.  Scott’s Porsche.  He was so deep in shit right now it would take a crane to dig him out, and where was he?

Hiding out in a tourist trap; a restored western movie set with dirt streets, wanna-be actors and fake shoot-outs on the hour.  And the memories of being an eight-year-old kid on a rare family vacation.

Sam Jenkins had invited them to the cabin he owned in Big Bear Lake.  Johnny had flown with Jelly from Texas to the ranch in the San Joaquin, and then the whole family had piled into Murdoch’s Jeep Cherokee.   He and Scott had spent the next several hours in the back seat; over-dosing on Jelly’s supply of John Wayne DVD’s, and by the time they had reached Big Bear and relative freedom they were primed for adventure.

After a stern lecture about responsibility and being back on time for dinner, Murdoch had turned them loose at a friend’s of Sam’s who owned horses.  Both experienced riders, they’d immediately back-tracked on an old trail the man had pointed out; finding themselves in the mock western town that was surprisingly familiar.  Scott had been the first one to realize the site had been used in several of the old Westerns Jelly liked to watch; recalling aloud a show he remembered.  Jack Elam had been in the episode; an outlaw who showed up in the town in search of a girl who was claiming to be his daughter.  The girl had been a real hell-raiser; and voluptuous enough for a teen aged boy to take note.

The curious trip back in time was an ideal setting for two boys away from the overly-cautious adults that were always supervising them: the dirty streets, the make-believe saloons, the small lake and waterfall they found later.  Scott had organized a game of Cowboy and Indians, which Johnny had immediately turned into Lawman and Outlaw.

He’d made a pretty damned decent outlaw.  The crew from a PBS station had been there, filming a special on the myth of the Old West, and Johnny had filched two sets of prop guns from one of the trailers, along with a couple of beat-up Stetsons; one with conchos and storm strings.  He also conned the son of the site’s manager out of a Winchester look-alike pellet gun.

He laughed.  That pellet gun had gotten him into a shit load of trouble.  He’d plunked at Scott from ambush, blowing a finger-sized hole in the Stetson that left his brother with a pretty decent crease across his forehead, just at the hairline.  It had bled.  A lot.  And it had scared the Hell out of him, knowing he’d hurt his brother.

Once Sam had taken care of Scott, Johnny found himself in need of attention.  Ice packs; lots of ice packs.  After a particularly harsh lecture, Murdoch had put him over his knee and soundly blistered his behind.  He’d eaten his supper in the kitchen that night, standing at the kitchen counter.  It was the first time in his memory anyone had paddled him.

It wasn’t the last.

Johnny laid his head on his forearms, deep in thought; his eyes closed.  He sensed rather than felt the presence at his back, but before he could react, the fingers closed around the nape of his neck.  He felt the curls at his ears move when the man spoke.

“First rule for an outlaw,” Scott breathed.  “Never stand with your back to the door, remember?  Table in the back of the room, in a corner, full view of the doors, the windows and the street.”  He leaned in further.  “Little brother, your ass is grass, and I am the largest lawn-mower on the planet.”  He relaxed his hold, but didn’t let go.

Johnny pulled himself upright.  He watched as his brother’s left hand snaked out and retrieved the tumbler of Scotch; which he drained in a single swallow. “How?” he sputtered.

“GPS,” Scott answered without hesitation.  What he didn’t say was that before he left the ranch he had ordered a second chip from his friend at NCIS; one he was going to install on his baby brother’s Harley.

Shit!  Johnny thought.  “Murdoch here?” he asked.

“No,” Scott answered.  “Frank drove up with me.”  He smiled.  “Murdoch’s waiting at home.”

“Not goin’ back,” Johnny snapped.

Laughter from the elder Lancer son; dry, filled with humor.  “Oh, but you are,” he snorted.   His right hand drifted from the younger boy’s neck to his upper right arm.  “I’m not going to put up with any of your crap, Johnny.  We’re going home, and that’s the end of it.”  He pulled his brother to him, and headed for the door.

“Just a minute!”  The bartender, dressed in character, put down the glass he had been polishing.  “I just ran his credit card,” he announced, nodding at the machine sitting on a shelf below the antique cash register.  “It came back ‘unauthorized charges’.  The machine ate the card.”

Scott eyed the man suspiciously; then turned his gaze on his sibling.   Johnny had only one credit card that he knew of: the one Murdoch had provided for his youngest son when he started high school.  It had a limit.  It also, thanks to a close friend Murdoch had at Wells-Fargo, had a narrow and restrictive base for actual trade.  The card was limited to use at the school book store, cafeteria, sporting events and concession stands; and the single Mom and Pop gas station between Jelly’s ranch and town.  “This just gets better and better,” Scott muttered.  He dug into his back pocket, taking out his tri-fold wallet, and produced his platinum AMEX card.  “I should have just waited and let them arrest you for attempting to stiff the bartender and for under-aged drinking.”  Eyes narrowing, he pinned his brother with a harsh glare.  “I checked the odometer, Johnny; and the gas gauge.  How did you plan on paying for gas when you left here?”

The brunet frowned.  Other than fifty bucks he had tucked in a slit in his belt, which he had figured for food, he didn’t have any cash at all.   He shrugged.  “Didn’t think about it,” he ground out.

Scott was signing the credit card slip.  “You are going to pay me back,” he said, adding a generous tip just for spite.  He folded yellow copy into precise thirds around the credit card and stuck it into his billfold.  “And we will be discussing the Porsche on the way home.”

Johnny swallowed.  “I’ll ride with Frank in the truck,” he said.

“Frank is already headed back to Lancer,” Scott declared.   “Let’s go.”  Again, he took his brother’s arm.

The keys were in the ignition.  Scott opened the passenger side door and pointed.  “Get in,” he ordered.  He watched as his brother settled in.  “Harness,” he instructed; waiting to shut the door until Johnny was buckled up.

“What about gas?” Johnny asked.  He was staring straight ahead.  He hated the racing seat belts.  They reminded him of a harness Jelly had rigged up when he was a toddler; a way of keeping track of Johnny when he was out in the yard.

“We brought the field truck,” Scott answered, turning the key.  The dual cab Silverado had extra fuel tanks mounted on the back for the ranch vehicles.  “Frank filled up the car before he left.”  The motor was already purring, and he nudged the gas pedal a bit, watching the rpms as the engine revved.  God, how he loved the sound.

Turning slightly, Scott backed out of the parking lot, acknowledging a smile from one of the costumed saloon girls that was sneaking a cigarette on the front porch.  She had, he observed, legs up to here; and auburn hair that looked far too real to be a wig.  He waved at her before pulling out towards the main road; wondering if she was summer-seasonal, or if she would be in the area during ski season.

“Should have hung around, brother.  You might have gotten lucky.”  In spite of his bad mood, Johnny smiled.

“I don’t get lucky, little brother,” Scott murmured.  The pale eyes were dancing.  “I get laid.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open.  His brother never talked to him about his conquests.

“Now about the Porsche,” Scott began.  Already, they had reached the asphalt road leading to the highway.

The brunet frowned.  “Let me out,” he demanded.

Scott was accelerating.  He loved driving mountain roads.  “Be my guest,” he said, nodding towards the roadway; the landscape that was beginning to blur.  “You should be aware; however, I have no intention of slowing down or stopping.”  The needle on the speedometer was steadily climbing as he shifted smoothly into high gear.

The only relief for Johnny was the feeling of the wind in his hair.  Scott was in full military mode, effectively multi-tasking as he concentrated on the road and his younger brother.  The lecture continued all the way to the foot of the mountain.

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

Murdoch was standing in front of the fax machine that sat on the oak filing cabinet behind his desk, speed reading the individual sheets of paper as they crawled out of the machine.  It was clear from the expression on his face he was annoyed; not just at what he was reading, but also because whoever the idiot was who was doing the faxing was sending the papers in reverse order, last page first.

He gathered the pages up and moved back to his big chair and sat down.  Laying the documents out, he began comparing them side-by-side to the packet Jelly had Fed-Exed him earlier.  Under other circumstances, what he was seeing might have been amusing, a major practical joke; however, since what he was studying were two separate and very different records of one John Madrid Lancer, it was an entirely different matter.

It had taken a half-dozen telephone calls and one final conference call before the vice-principal at Johnny’s high school had finally sorted out the mess.  Johnny, it became clear, had not only hacked into the school district’s mainframe; he had managed to give himself a 4.0 grade average, a glowing report on his progress in all classes, along with a numbered no-fee permit for his Harley in the administrative parking lot.

He had also deleted any records of the two suspensions he had received, and the third offense that had resulted in his being expelled.


Murdoch fingered the stack of papers, pulling out the copy of the smarmy letter Jelly had supposedly written to get Johnny reinstated after his return from South America.  It was, the man mused, giving the devil his due, a creative piece of fiction.  It was also a load of pure bullshit.   But it had done the job.  Johnny had gotten himself reinstated, and then promptly began cutting classes.  There already a stack of excused absences to cover his ass, complete with Jelly’s signature.

Wonderful, he thought.  His obviously delinquent son was now also a master forger!

The big man buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath; holding back the string of curses that were threatening to erupt.  It was obvious now that even before the difficulty with Sandoval, Johnny had been absent from classes; which meant he had been doing God only knows what and lying to Jelly about where he had been.

And the timing of Johnny’s most recent hell-raising was in perfect correlation with Jelly’s intense interest in one Ms. Angela Ferris.

Murdoch looked up, hearing the sound of the front door opening and a brief scuffle in the hallway.  He heard Scott speaking, the blonde’s deep baritone carrying into the bowels of the tiled entryway as he ordered his brother up the stairs.  “No detours, little brother.  Just go upstairs and consider yourself fortunate I’m not dragging you into the throne room.”

Murdoch stifled a laugh.  He stood up and crossed to the table behind the couch, pouring two tumblers of Taliskers.  Drink in hand; he waited for his elder son.  “Throne room?” he asked, handing off the glass.

Laughing, Scott reached out, accepting the drink. “That’s what Johnny calls your chair,” he answered.  “The throne.”  He took a drink of the Scotch.  “You don’t suppose he’s already trying to get out the window?” he asked.  Like his father, Scott assumed that had been Johnny’s exit route, in spite of his father’s warning.

It was Murdoch’s turn to laugh.  “He’ll be in for a big surprise.”  When he saw the puzzled look on his son’s face, he offered up an explanation.  “I had Cip resurrect some of the old security hardware,” he said.  “He and Walt spent the afternoon making some major alterations to the exterior wall of your brother’s bedroom; along with some interior modifications.”

“The grillwork that used to be on the windows,” Scott breathed.  Sometimes — although not too often — he forgot what a crafty old fox his father could be.

“Amongst other things.”  Murdoch had returned to his desk, but had remained on his feet.  He was leafing through the papers that were still spread out across the dark wood.   “Your brother has been very busy,” he announced, his forefinger tapping on the stack of papers.  “He hacked into the mainframe at his high school and altered his records.  He’s been expelled and reinstated, Scott; all without Jelly’s knowing.  In fact, he hasn’t attended school on a regular basis since before the kidnapping.”   

Scott moved to join his father; smiling a bit at the ‘your brother’; yet somehow not surprised by what he was hearing.  Although Johnny claimed computers were a waste of time, and that anyone who used them were nothing but geeks and douche-bags (a phrase he used because he knew his father hated it) he was quite adept in their use.  “Are you going to tell him what you’ve found out?” he asked.  As angry as he was with his brother, he hoped to avoid any major confrontation.  Not this late in the evening.

The Lancer patriarch seemed to be considering his answer.  He reached out, something tender in the gesture as his hand came to rest on his son’s forehead and he brushed back the younger man’s hair.  With his forefinger, he traced the nearly invisible scar just at the hair line.  “Not just yet,” he answered; his hand dropping to his side.  “If I go up there now, there’s a very good chance I may deal with him the same way I did when he pulled that fool stunt with the pellet gun!”  The memory of Scott’s bloody face was as clear as if it had just happened.  That; and the recollection of an eight-year old Johnny yelling curse words in two languages as he found himself upended across his father’s lap.  The swearing stopped immediately after the first two swats.

Scott’s eyes warmed, the affection he felt for his father obvious as he returned the older man’s tenuous smile.  “I organize a truly imaginative game of cowboys and Indians, and what does Johnny do?  Turns it into Outlaw and Lawman.”  He took another drink, emptying his glass.  “My brother, the gunfighter,” he laughed.  Just as quickly, he sobered.  “What are we going to do, Murdoch?”

The big man sighed.  “First,” he breathed, “we’re going to flip a coin to determine who’s going to tell Jelly what Johnny’s been up to.”  He was not joking.  “And Val.  And then I’m going to deal with your brother.”

Scott put his glass down.  “I want him first,” he announced, a mock seriousness in his tone.  “He’s going to wash the Porsche,” he said.  “And then he’s going to wax it, and polish it, and…”

Murdoch raised his hand, effectively stopping the tirade.  “I’m sure something can be arranged, son.  Your brother won’t be going anywhere beyond the confines of this house or the front yard in the near or foreseeable future.”  He reached out, laying a broad hand on the younger man’s slim shoulder.  “I’m going to lock his bedroom door when I turn in, Scott.”  He turned slightly towards the hallway.  “That,” he sighed, wincing at the sound of a slamming door and angry footsteps, “will be your brother.”

Johnny stormed into the room.  “Where the hell is my stuff!?” he demanded.  His cheeks were flushed; more from anger then the trip down the stairs.

The general purposely took a long, slow sip of Scotch before answering.  “Your stuff,” he began, not one bit of rancor in the words, “has been moved to the game room.”  When the boys had begun making their surreptitious but regular visits to the ranch, he had converted a small suite of rooms on the lower floor, just off the Great Room, into a media center.  “Your Wii is there, along with your CD player.  Some of your things have been put into storage.   Your access to any of those items I just mentioned will depend entirely on your behavior.”

Scott was watching his younger brother’s face.  Johnny was a short hair away from a major temper tantrum.  His father, on the other hand, was remarkably calm.

“It’s not fair!” Johnny shouted.  “Those are my things!  You got no fuckin’ right…”

Murdoch turned to face his youngest son fully; his eyes narrowing.  “Your bedroom,” he stressed the word, “is not an arcade.  When I send you upstairs to your room it’s because you are being punished, not provided endless entertainment.”  He took another sip of Taliskers.  “I suggest you think about that the next time you do something foolish, or that you’ve been forbidden to do.  I also strongly suggest you get your behind back up those stairs.”

Johnny ignored his father’s suggestion.  Fists clenched, he stomped across the room until he was mere inches from the older man.  “Fuck you!”

Scott sucked in a lung full of air as time seemed to stand still.  And then, in seemingly slow motion that rapidly increased to lightning speed, he watched as his father grabbed his younger brother and put him in an effective head lock.  The next thing he knew, he could actually see dust rising as Johnny’s backside became intimately acquainted with his father’s bare right hand.

Releasing his youngest boy, Murdoch pointed a long finger at the hallway.  “Go,” he ordered.  “NOW!”

The blond watched as his brother beat a hasty retreat; surprised that with his father’s bellowing and Johnny’s boot-thumping exit the rafters were still intact.  “Sir,” he ventured, “was that really necessary?”

Murdoch was shaking his right hand, trying to ease the sting.  “If he continues to behave like an eight year old, he’s going to be treated like an eight year old,” he muttered.  End of discussion.

Briefly, Scott closed his eyes.  “Why do I get the feeling it’s going to be a long, hot summer?” he asked.

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

Johnny was sitting on the edge of his bed.  He was still wearing the clothes he had worn the day before; in fact, had slept in them.  His life was pure shit right now, a feeling that intensified as his eyes swept the interior of his now barren room.  It’s like bein’ in that fuckin’ jail in Juarez, he thought.  Surprised the Old Man didn’t get Cip to rig up a swing-down bunk.  Fuck!  He stared hard at the wrought iron grid on the exterior wall outside of his window: the finger-thick grill work he remembered from the old pictures he’d seen in Murdoch’s study.  They were intended originally as defense from the Indians, Johnny; and later the land pirates, his father had explained during a visit with Jelly.

He hadn’t even noticed the grill work at first.  The fact that his flat screen TV, his Wii and his DVD player was gone was more than enough to light his fire.  Shit.  It had been bad enough after the Chinese restaurant thing when the Old Man took his lap top and his cell.  But this…  His gaze swept the room a second time.  Bed.  Dresser.  Desk.  Chair.

The icing on the cake had come later, when — after planning another trip down the laundry chute — he attempted to open his bedroom door; just as someone (the Old Man, no doubt) turned a key in the heavy lock.

He heard the sound again, and looked up; primed for a fight.  “‘Bout time,” he snarled.

“And good morning to you, little brother,” Scott greeted.  He stepped across the threshold.  “You’ve got about fifteen minutes to get showered and changed before breakfast,” he announced, tapping his wristwatch with his right forefinger.

Johnny looked down at his shirt, pulling it away from his taut belly.  Knowing it would annoy his brother, he did a quick pit check; lowering his arm and shaking his head.  “Don’t need a shower,” he groused.  “And my clothes are just fine.”

Scott was shaking his head.  “Maria may disagree with you, Johnny.  You do want to eat breakfast?”

The brunet stood up and finger-combed his hair.  “She’ll feed me,” he grinned.  “She always feeds me.”

“That’s not all she does to you,” Scott muttered. Knowing it was useless to continue arguing, he nodded towards the hallway.

Johnny slipped into his beat-up Doc Martin’s, not bothering to tie the laces; and headed for the door.  “So how come you got a key to my door?” he asked.

Scott was behind the youth, pushing him along.  “Because I’m the big brother.”

The brunet snorted.  That was pretty much what Scott seemed to be saying about everything lately.  “Because I’m the big brother,” he mocked.  Scott thumped him on the back of his head.

Murdoch was already at the table when they arrived, deep in conversation with the housekeeper.  Maria was her usual neat self; wearing a pale blue short sleeved, man tailored shirt that was tucked into a pair of crisp white slacks topping a pair of amazingly white Sketchers.

Somewhere in her late forties, the woman was still quite trim; her thick dark hair pulled up into a neat French twist.  She wore only a minute amount of makeup, achieving a natural look; her olive skin and dark brown eyes giving her, somehow, an air of mystery.  As soon as she heard the two young men enter the room, she turned.  She smiled in greeting to Scott, her right eye-brow arching as she spied Johnny.

The young man stopped dead in his tracks; so fast his brother smacked into his back.  Maria was carrying her spoon.  “Hey,” Johnny greeted.  He flashed the woman his best grin, the teasing half-smile that caused the skin at the corner of his left eye to crinkle mischievously; the look Scott always referred to as Johnny’s ultimate weapon in the charm game.  It was the same look that — on his good days — got him extra bacon on his plate, bigger glasses of fresh milk and extra dulcitos.  He patted his stomach.  “Smells good, Mamacita.”

Maria wasn’t buying it.  She flipped the spoon vertically, holding it just above the shallow bowl.  Using the handle, she hooked the hem of Johnny’s less-than-clean t-shirt and pulled it up slightly.  “I put clean clothes in your room yesterday,” she announced.  “There is some reason you’ve come to my table in this?”  Another tug at the shirt; this time enough of a pull that a portion of Johnny’s recently decorated belly came into view.

Scott whispered the word run into Johnny’s left ear and then stepped out from behind his brother, heading for the coffee urn that was sitting on the serving buffet behind his father’s chair.  Instead of taking Scott’s advice, Johnny made the mistake of backing up in an attempt to get away from the housekeeper’s probing spoon.

“What is this?” the woman demanded.  She pinned the younger boy in place, her dark eyes smoldering.  She’d known about the tattoo on the boy’s wrist, but no-one had informed her about the stomach art.  When he attempted to push away the spoon, she took a step forward; raising the spoon handle and the shirt as she got closer.

Johnny failed miserably in his two fisted attempt to pull the t-shirt back down.  “Nothin’,” he answered.  Anxious to create a distraction, he raised both his hands.  “Need to wash up,” he said, nodding towards the kitchen.

Maria was still staring intently at the monkeys.  She shook her head.  “Go,” she ordered, turning the spoon back around and using it to gesture towards the kitchen door.

There was a sound a Johnny exhaled; a sudden puff of air coming as he sighed out his relief.  He made an immediate left and, eager to be away from the woman’s continued scrutiny, headed towards the kitchen.

He should have known better than to turn his back on the woman who had been his one-time nanny.  Before he could take a single forward step, she smacked him with the rounded edge of the spoon; twice.  They were solid blows; enough that the skin-tight, button-fly Levis he was wearing did little to stop the harsh sting.  It didn’t help that his butt was still sore from the smacks his father had delivered the night before.  The memory only served to ignite his temper.  “¡Maldice dios! ¡Eso lastimó!”  (God damn it!  That hurt!)  He reached back, rubbing at his butt only to have a third swat land again on his right buttock, the end of the spoon catching the tips of the fingers on his right hand.  He immediately turned around, facing the woman as he withdrew his hand from his butt and blew on the stinging fingertips.

Murdoch and Scott both took long drinks of coffee.  It was evident from their eyes they were smiling.

Johnny was not amused.  “You gonna let her get away with that!?” he demanded, frowning at his father.  The frown deepened when he swung his eyes to his elder sibling.  “Well!?” he snapped.

Scott pulled out the chair on his father’s right and sat down.  “If I were you, brother, I’d watch my language and get those hands washed.  You know how upset Maria gets when you’re late to the table and the food has gone cold.”

Maria was standing with her arms crossed, the wooden spoon tapping impatiently against her upper left arm.   Muttering under his breath, Johnny headed into the hallway; the housekeeper hot on his heels.  Behind him, he heard his father and brother dissolve into unrestrained laughter.

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

They were together behind the old stock barn; in the well shaded area just beyond the double back door.  The building now housed several of Lancer’s private vehicles, as well as fully equipped shop complete with a lift.  Both Lancer sons were more than casual tinkerers, and even the usually neat Scott had no aversion at all of getting his hands dirty working on the many cars and truck.

The drive leading up to the back door of the barn was an extension of the ranch’s private landing strip, the black tarmac just recently coated with a fresh layer of asphalt.  Scott’s Porsche was sitting dead center on the driveway, the doors open and a shop wet/dry vac sitting close to the right front wheel.

Scott was lounging in a folding chair, his long legs stretched out before him; a stack of manila file folders lying open against his slim thighs.  At his left side was a medium-sized Coleman cooler, the lid ajar; several bottles of Perrier and an assortment of soft drinks protruding from the mound of ice.

Johnny was on the tarmac.  He’d shed his t-shirt and was wearing a pair of cut off jeans; still pissed that Maria had insisted he take a shower and change before she let him leave the house.  Like that made any fuckin’ sense, considering his current chore. 

He was in his stockinged feet now, the wet white socks a sharp contrast against his tanned legs.  In spite of the shade, he was sweating; his raven-black hair damp and curly at his neck and ears.  Wringing out the sponge he had just taken from the large plastic bucket, white suds dripping down his arm, he shot his elder brother a long, hard glare.  “So just how many freakin’ times you gonna make me wash this thing?” he groused.

“Until it’s immaculate,” Scott said without looking up, “inside and out.  And then, little brother, you are going to wax it.”  He made a circular motion with his right hand, first one way and then the other, “wax on, wax off.”  The reference to one of Johnny’s favorite movies, The Karate Kid, was intentional.

Johnny couldn’t help but laugh.  Still, it pissed him off that he was busting his ass and was going to be working on the car a hell of a lot longer than he had been able to drive it.  He dunked the big sponge into the bucket, withdrew it, and cocked back his arm.

“If you throw that sponge, John,” Scott warned, looking up and pinning his brother with his own version of the look, “you are going to be wearing that bucket.”

Johnny was standing stock still now, his arm frozen in the cocked position as if he were playing stone tag.  Reconsidering, he put the sponge back into the bucket and wrung it out.  He hated it when Scott went all big brother.  Push came to shove, the blond could be every bit as much of a hard-ass as their old man.

Scott’s head was back down and he was thumbing through the stack of papers on his lap. Frowning, he shook his head.  “Would you care to explain to me, Johnny, just how you managed to fail your Spanish as a Second Language course?”  He made no effort to hide the sarcasm.

The younger man was scrubbing dead bug shit off the right head lamp.  He straightened and tossed the sponge into the bucket dead center, not giving a damn as the water sloshed onto the asphalt at his feet.  “It’s not like that damned…” he frowned, searching for the right word, “…syllabus said seventy-five percent of the final grade was going to be the essays we were gonna write in Spanish,” he snapped.  “Who the hell cares about conjugatin’ verbs!  And what the hell is Castilian Spanish, anyway!?”  He snorted, his voice rising.  “And who the hell actually speaks it!?”         

Scott bit his lower lip, stopping the smile; realizing now that his brother had taken the course because he thought it was going to be a snap.  Because his mother was the daughter of a Spanish diplomat — well born and well educated — Johnny had spoken Spanish almost before he had spoken English.  “Grammar is always important, little brother, no matter the language.”  He looked up at his sibling.  “You’re going to have to make up the work, you know.”  Lifting up the stack of folders, he continued.  “As well as the English, Civics, American History and my own personal favorite, trigonometry.”

Johnny stood with his hands knotted at his hips, his mouth pursing into the usual stubborn pout that came when he was about to throw a major fit or offer a challenge.  “Says who?”  It wasn’t like he needed any of that classroom shit.

“Our father, for one,” Scott answered.  “And any decent university you plan on attending.”

This time, the younger man laughed.  “And if I ain’t…” he used the word on purpose; dropping the g’s as he continued; fully aware it would irritate his brother, “…plannin’ on attendin’ any ‘decent’ University?”

The blond was restacking the file folders.  College was a given for Lancer men for several generations back.  It wasn’t a matter of if you go to college; it was always spoken of as when you go to college.   Anything else was unthinkable, and there was no alternative.  It was just a fact.  He studied his brother for a long time before speaking.  “And you plan on doing what?” he asked, an edge to his words; his voice soft.  “I mean, when you finally grow up?”

Johnny’s face flushed a bright red.  He was about to speak up when Scott rose up from his chair, his eyes turning upwards as he studied the horizon.  Johnny turned to see what his brother was looking at, hearing the object before he actually saw it.  Lifting his right hand to shade his eyes, he stepped out into the, his gaze focusing on the range of low mountain east of the ranch.  He saw it then, the trim five passenger Cirrus dipping through the lower layer of clouds as it approached the ranch; the sound of the engines changing as the airplane throttled back to make its approach on the far side of the wide runway, ascending again as it banked left and made a complete turn for its final approach. Steadily, the Cirrus descended, gearing down as the wheels made smooth contact with the tarmac. Flaps down, the airplane rolled to a slow stop; directly in front of the barn door, its nose pointed in the direction from which it had come.

Scott was standing beside his brother now, concentrating on the wing numbers as the plane rolled to a complete stop; a smile coming as he recognized the painting on the fuselage.  It was a stylized State of Texas flag draped above a flawless portrait of the Alamo.  “Val,” he breathed.

Johnny swore, under his breath.  He started looking for his t-shirt; angry with himself for having tossed it on the ground beside the Porsche, knowing damned good and well the shirt was now not only soaking wet, but in all likelihood filthy.

Both young men watched as the tall Texan jumped from the airplane and quickly moved to the tires. He blocked the wheels, tamping the curved blocks of wood into place.  And then he headed back to the door; pulling it open wide and releasing the stairs.  He stood at the bottom of the steps, waiting.  It didn’t take long.  Jelly Hoskins bandy-legged form appeared at the top of the narrow steps.  He turned slightly, his right arm disappearing into the darkness.  When he turned forward, he was guiding a woman down the stairs.

Again, Johnny swore; this time aloud. As soon as the three people began approaching the place where he and his brother were standing, Johnny made a quick about face and started for the darkness of the barn.  He’d gone less than a foot when Scott pulled him back.

“No point in running, little brother,” Scott admonished.  “It’s time to pay the piper.”  He immediately felt his sibling tense beneath his fingers.

“C’mon, Scott.”  The next word was one Johnny thought he would never use.  “Please.”

Scott turned slightly to face his kid brother.  He nodded.  “Go hook up the hose so we can rinse the car.  Take your time.  You can dig out the Turtle Wax while you’re in the barn looking for the spray nozzle.”

Johnny took off like the proverbial bat out of Hell.  Scott knew damned good and well the spray nozzle was already attached to the hose; just like he knew the Turtle Wax was on the same shelf where it always was.

The blond was standing alone when Val approached him.  “Val.”  He extended his hand, and then turned to Jelly and the woman, his tone changing ever so slightly, the warmth all but gone.  “Jelly.”  He nodded to the woman.  “Ms. Ferris.”

Jelly was no fool.  He’d also known Scott Lancer all his life.  He reached out, drawing Angeline closer.  “I’m here to talk to Murdoch, and to Johnny.  Goin’ to get this straightened out, once and for all.”  With that, he took Angeline’s arm and led her towards the main house.

Val watched as the older man stalked towards the front door.  “So how is he, the kid?”

Scott stared across at the man.  “Maybe the question, Val, is how is he going to be after you and Jelly get done tearing him a new one?”

The tall Texan’s eyes narrowed.  “He’s off the Olympic team, Scott.  I had a telephone conference with the board, and he’s not going to be allowed to compete anymore, or do any exhibition shooting.  And, before you ask, yeah, I’m pissed at him.”  He was quiet a moment.  “A couple of the board members suggested the kid needs to see a shrink.”

Scott swallowed.  “PTSD,” he murmured.  “And, yes, Murdoch and I discussed the possibility.”  His cheeks colored.  “For Christ’s sake, Val, Sandoval…”

Val reached out.  “I could use some of your Old Man’s scotch,” he suggested.  He smiled.  “Hell, I’m as bad as you are, Boston.  I can’t stay mad at the kid, either.”  Just as quickly, the smile turned into a frown.  Purposely, he spoke a bit louder; knowing damned good and well Johnny was in the barn and able to hear.  “That don’t mean that I’m not goin’ to kick his sorry ass across the tarmac before this is over.”

The blond laughed.  “Come on.  I’ll buy you that drink.”  Together, the two men headed towards the hacienda, taking their time.  “So how angry do you think Jelly is?”  Scott asked.  “And what exactly is going on between that old man and the delightful Ms. Ferris?”

Val chuckled at the sarcasm.  “Major pissed off,” he answered, addressing the first question.  “As for Jelly and the woman; the old fool’s actin’ like he’s Prince Charles to her Camilla: true fuckin’ love at last!”  Not the least bit repentant over his assessment of the situation as he saw it, he clapped the younger man on the back.  “Smart-assed as your little brother is, Scott, he’s still got pretty good gut instinct when it comes to people.  And he don’t like that woman.  I can’t help but think you’re a little put off by her too, because you were so busy starin’ a hole right through her, you didn’t even notice Jelly’s dyed his beard and touched up his hair.”

Stopping abruptly, Scott turned to the older man and pulled him up short; his mouth dropped open and a surprised huff escaped. He opened and shut his mouth three more times before finding his voice.  “Jelly’s been grey headed with a white beard for years and he waits until he’s sixty-six to do something about it.  He must really have it bad for this woman.”

Scratching at the day old whiskers on his face, Val shook his head, and then frowned, the action causing his brown eyes to lose the teasing sparkle.  “Don’t get me wrong.  Jelly’s lost at love once and if he’s happy, I’d like to wish him all the best…but I ain’t so sure the Ferris woman is the best.”

In a gesture that was subconsciously all Murdoch Lancer, Scott pursed his lips and rubbed his slim index along the outside of his nose.  “Perhaps it might be prudent to have some of my buddies back in Naval Intelligence run a few background checks.  I know Johnny can behave like a complete idiot sometimes,” he shrugged, “even a spoiled brat; but his actions lately are entirely out of character.  Under ordinary circumstances, my brother is one of the most compassionate people I know, and his feelings for Jelly have always run deep; deep enough he’s never done anything to cause that old man any real grief.

“He’s changed, Val,” he said quietly.  “Everything seems to set him off.”  He shook his head.  

 Suddenly aware of raised voices coming from the house, Scott and Val quickly picked up their pace.  Turning towards the house they broke out into a sprint of synchronized steps, entering the hacienda through the open French door.  As they moved across the room, Maria came in pushing a serving cart loaded down with refreshments.

“I’m telling ya’, I don’t know what the Hell is the matter with that boy!  He’s been downright surly an’ suck egg mule mean. Me and him are gonna have a little prayer meetin’ with as sturdy a switch as I can find,” Jelly exclaimed, rocking from his heels up to his tip toes as though he was trying to increase his height and intimidate Murdoch while he confronted him.

 Shaking his head negatively, Murdoch commanded, “No, sir, you are not.”  Seeing the look of hurt and confusion on Jelly’s face, the General held up his hand, palm out to stall any further arguments from Gramps.  “Jelly, stop your blustering and hear me out.  I honest to God am not trying to usurp your spot in Johnny’s life but the fact remains at this point you aren’t the solution to Johnny’s problems.  If you would just calm down for a minute, I have some things to show you that will reveal just how serious this situation is.”

 Angeline Ferris was making herself right at home.  “Really, gentlemen, getting into each other’s faces and shouting is hardly going to help,”  she fairly purred as she got up and helped herself to a drink from the serving cart, her eyes surreptitiously taking in the signs of quality and money in the furnishings of the room.  Her calculating inspection of the room ceased when she realized she was the object of scrutiny in Maria’s eyes, and if the woman’s scowl was any indication she had been measured and found lacking.  She smirked when Maria huffed, turned on her heel and stomped from the room.

 Grinding his teeth in irritation, Murdoch turned to Angeline.   “Miss Ferris, with all due respect, you are part of the problem here, and quite frankly, I don’t think your advice or presence helps the situation in any form.”

Jelly immediately bristled at the condemnation he perceived aimed at his lady love. “Now ya’ hold it just a gol’dang minute, you got no call to light into Angeline like that!” the old Gunny shouted, punctuating his statement with vicious finger jabs to Murdoch’s chest.  “We’re gettin’ married, and I’ll have you know, she’s already said she’s more than willin’ to do whatever we –” he emphasized the word with an extra thump to Murdoch’s chest, “we need to do to get that boy back on track!!  So like it, or not she’s gonna become a big part of the solution.”  

Grabbing the gnarled hand, Murdoch flung it aside and growled, “Jelly, it’s the truth whether you want to admit it or not.  Johnny has been thrown for a loop.  What happened at the ranch and later in South America has impacted him more than we realized.  He’s struggling now to get his feet back on solid ground, and even the slightest change in what’s routine for him has become a major trauma. The introduction of a veritable stranger into his life when things are normal would be difficult enough, but this is far too much.  You can’t expect Johnny to trust Ms. Ferris from the word go.   She’s going to have to earn that trust; and do so before the two of you even contemplate marriage.  If that doesn’t happen…”    Murdoch allowed the thinly veiled threat to hang mid-air, knowing Jelly would understand.

Hoping to avoid what would become an ugly quarrel regarding a complete cutting off of Jelly’s relationship with Johnny, Scott strode across the room to his father’s desk and picked up the four folders containing copies of the faxes Murdoch had received from Ulvade County School District.  “Gentlemen, if you would all have a seat, we can review the documents sent by Johnny’s high school,” he remarked as he moved about the room handing out the files, making a point of putting the folder in Jelly’s hand despite the fact Angeline had her hand extended.  He missed the vicious gleam in the Ferris woman’s eyes as he pivoted to walk away.  Before sitting down he took the tumbler of scotch Val had poured for him.

Once everyone was seated, Murdoch rubbed nervously at his chin, and then cleared his throat.  “Before you read this I want to clarify there isn’t any one person entirely to blame for this situation.  Johnny must bear the consequences for his actions just as we must for our inaction.”

Already painfully aware of what was contained in the files, Scott and Murdoch watched as Jelly and Val opened their folders, warily observing both men as they gauged their reactions.  It was hard to watch as Jelly seemed to deflate with dejection as he read the first page detailing Johnny’s two suspensions, which culminated in his third offense requiring his expulsion.  His lips tightened in displeasure as his eyes reached the bottom of the page where the evidence of Johnny forging letters from him was described.

Laying the folder in his lap, Jelly sighed heavily and scratched at his beard.  “I…I didn’t know things were this bad.  This ain’t nothin’ like the pranks he pulled after he returned from the Olympics.  This stuff that’s happened after the kidnappin’ is way worse,” his voice trembled. “How the hell did I miss seein’ what was going on?”

There was a rustling sound as Angeline Ferris moved in closer beside Jelly.    “Darling,” she crooned, “it’s not like Johnny is a toddler that needs watching every second.  He’s a teenager, and teenagers are by nature secretive creatures because they are testing their boundaries, preparing for their eventual total independence.”   She picked up the old man’s hand; clasping it to her breast to show her support and to comfort him.

Snorting, Val drew everyone’s attention to him.  Never known for being tactful, Crawford’s face screwed up into the surly scowl that warned he was about to speak his mind in his bold and blunt way; pure Texas hill country and no bullshit.  “You didn’t see it because you weren’t lookin’,” he groused.  “You used to pay more attention to Johnny’s schoolin’, but since you took to courtin’ …well you been actin’ like a damned teenager yourself.  Instead of bein’ honest with the kid, you were slippin’ around seein’ her on the sly.  Don’tcha think that was excludin’ Johnny from your life?” Val asked, placing his tongue over his front teeth and making a sucking sound as he stared the old man down.

Puffing out his cheeks, his face reddening in anger and embarrassment, Jelly’s spine stiffened to the point he was almost sitting at attention.  He didn’t know what pissed him off the most; that Val seemed to know so much about his personal life, or the snide remarks about the job he’d been doing as Johnny’s guardian.   “I resent what you’re implyin’, Crawford,” he snapped.  “I’ve been there for Johnny.  And contrary to what that boy thinks, there ain’t no law against me datin’.”

It was clear from Crawford’s posture and tone he was having none of it.  “That’s right; been there, not am there.  You been so wrapped up in your woman, you even dyed your hair. You didn’t do that to look younger for Johnny, now didja?  And, hell, yes; there ain’t no law against you datin’…but you got to know, Jelly, you made that boy feel like you were abandonin’ him!”  The Texan was smiling when he said the words, not one mote of warmth in his dark eyes as his gaze shifted to the woman and he met her scrutiny dead on.   

“I don’t appreciate your attitude or opinion, Mr. Crawford,” Angeline retorted, her eyes glittering with rage. She scooted forward on the sofa, her fingers tips, with long red painted nails, digging into the couch cushion as she confronted Val.

Murdoch’s tone was deep and severe and the arch of his brow over his hard set eyes emphasized his sternness as he addressed the woman. “Miss Ferris, I would appreciate it if you would stay out of this.  You’re more than welcome to sit with Jelly, to lend him your comfort and support, but you will keep your opinions to yourself.  You have not been a factor in Johnny’s raising; nor will you be in the future.   Johnny has made the choice to come back to Lancer; and here he is going to stay.”

Realizing the conversation was about to get out of hand, Scott spoke up; deftly changing the subject.  “There’s no use arguing over the suspensions or expulsion at this point.” Shifting in his chair, he shuffled through the papers and drew one out.  “My father has already dealt with the restitution of the school property Johnny damaged.  However, he can’t be unsuspended or unexpelled.  As far as his schooling goes now, he will have to make up the year, here,” Scott emphasized with a pointed look when Jelly started to interrupt.  “There’s no way around him repeating his Senior year.  He failed: English, Civics, American History, Trigonometry and Spanish.”

There was a hearty explosion of brief laughter that ended as soon as it started.  “How the Hell did that little shit manage to fail Spanish when he speaks it like a fuckin’ native?” Val demanded, his eyes fairly bulging out the sockets as he scanned his copy of the report.

“The same way he failed the other classes,” Murdoch retorted.  “By not showing up and when he did show up, just flat not applying himself.”  Taking a sip of his drink and shaking his head as he studied the paper before him, he sighed and added, “He compounded his problem by hacking into the school’s mainframe and changing his grades and writing his own glowing reports.  Now the validity of his entire year is under question,” Murdoch growled.

Val exhaled.  “Well, he’s goin’ to have plenty of time to make it up.  As of yesterday mornin’, he’s off the shootin’ team, and he don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of gettin’ back on if he can’t get his act together.  I know he loves shootin’ and he’s as natural and perfect at it as the Tanner kid,” he said.  His eyes darkening with concern, he added, “Johnny is emotionally compromised right now…and I don’t think he needs to have a gun in his hand if he should happen to flashback like y’all described him doin’ on the plane and at the hospital.  I’m thinkin’ PTSD could be a real concern here,” Val finished, chewing worriedly on his bottom lip.

The grave atmosphere of the room was obliterated by the condescending trill of Angeline’s laughter. “You can’t be serious,” she fairly shrieked, clapping her hands together with a loud pop causing Jelly to flinch.  “I hardly think the few days he was hostage was enough to cause a condition seen in battle fatigued soldiers,” she stated staring from one man to the other oblivious to their solemn dispositions.  “Young Johnny’s problem is he is spoiled…his every mood and whim catered to,” she spouted, missing the cringe and look of surprise on Jelly’s face.  

Crumpling the page he was holding in his hand, his knuckles white with the distress he was feeling, Murdoch’s jaw clenched tightly and then the words fired from his mouth, coated with ill-concealed hot anger.  “How dare you,” Murdoch hissed as he powered up from his chair.  “How dare you presume to know one damn thing about my son.  Obliviously your pillow talk with Jelly hasn’t included the fact that as a two year old…JUST A BABY…Johnny was witness to the torture and death of his mother,” Murdoch boomed, his rigid enraged body advancing to tower over the woman.  “What the Hell makes you think you have the right to sit in judgment of Johnny?  You don’t have a right and I won’t have you making light of his problem,” Murdoch spat.  Lowering his head so they were face to face, he added, “I reiterate, stay out of this, you don’t have a clue what ‘MY’ child has been through.”

“Sir, come sit down, please,” Scott requested, walking over to his father and taking him by the elbow in an effort to separate the verbal combatants, slightly nervous the altercation might turn physical on Miss Ferris’ part.  The woman was flexing her fingers like a cat sharpening its claws, her long, tapered red nails already appearing to be bloody.

Realizing his lady love had tread on ground no sane man would, Jelly pulled Angeline back, wrapping an arm protectively around her shoulders.  Murdoch Lancer was a fierce warrior when it came to his men but when it came to his sons, especially his youngest; the man was protective and possessive with a homicidal bend and would stop at nothing to remove any perceived threat.

“I won’t be treated like you think I’m some sort of fool,” sputtered Angeline from the safety of Jelly’s arms, refusing to back down.

There was an audible rustle of fabric as Harlan Garrett stepped through the open French doors.  “It is better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” he stated, his tone exactly the same as if he were speaking to a business adversary whose firm had been acquired in a hostile takeover.    

“Grandfather, I didn’t hear you arrive,” Scott said, turning loose of his father and crossing the room to greet the elderly gentleman.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t hear me arrive.  I think Blake could have landed the copter on the roof and you would have never known, what with all the shouting going on,” Harlan replied, returning Scott’s hand shake before drawing him into a quick embrace.  Stepping back he turned disapproving eyes on the occupants of the Great room, his glare lingering a second on the Ferris woman.  “More importantly, I should inform you that not only did you fail to realize I was standing there, you also failed to see Johnny.”  The censure in Harlan’s voice was quite apparent.

“Great; just great!” snorted Val, “If this ain’t turnin’ into a real cluster fuck!”

Plopping down wearily into his chair, Murdoch scrubbed his face with doleful agitation.  “Oh, God, I wonder how much he heard?”

Harlan and Scott were now standing at the drink table behind the couch.  “I saw him dashing from the barn to the house when we flew over.  We landed behind the barn and I came straight here,” he explained, brushing imaginary lint from his immaculate jacket.  “I was surprised to find him standing outside the doors, fairly beating his head and fists against one of the pillars.”  Nodding acceptance to his grandson, he reached out and took the proffered snifter of brandy.   “And can someone explain to me why that boy was outside clad in nothing but cut off jeans and wet and filthy socks, without shoes?” he huffed.  When he saw the blank looks on everyone’s faces caused by his last question, he shook his head.

Scott gestured towards one of the blue overstuffed chairs close to Murdoch’s desk. “Please take a seat, Grandfather; and I’ll get you a copy of the school report we were attempting to discuss.”

Garrett waved off the offer to sit down. “That’s not necessary, Scott.  Your father emailed me an attachment of it while I was in flight.”  He was staring into the snifter, the bowl of the glass resting against his palm as he swirled the liquor and watched as it whirl-pooled out from the center.  “Please tell me that hideous tattoo of two monkeys covering most of Johnny’s stomach is a henna transfer like the guns he had on his wrist at Christmas.”

“I wish I could,” muttered Scott, sitting on the edge of his father’s chair and patting Murdoch’s shoulder in sympathy when he heard his Dad groan over the mention of the soon to be removed body art.

“TATTOO!” Jelly shouted, jumping up from the sofa. “When the Hell did he get a tattoo and why wasn’t I told?”

Val snickered as Scott was sent crashing to the floor when Murdoch exploded from the chair to loom large and furious over the much shorter Hoskins.  A shit eating grin crawled across his scruffy face as he thought this whole scene was beginning to look and sound like one of those soap operas Jelly always denied watching.  He fought the urge to cover his ears while Murdoch bellowed.

“He got the goddamn tattoo when the confrontation with you and that woman,” Murdoch shouted and pointed an accusatory finger at Ferris, “sent him running across the border into Mexico.”  Switching from pointing to poking Jelly’s chest, Murdoch continued, “Maybe you would have known about the damn tattoo if you hadn’t been too fucking busy to answer his call for help when he phoned home from a jail in Juárez!”

Throwing his chest back and shaking his head with derision Jelly exclaimed, “Well so much for that shit you were spoutin’ about this not being any one person’s fault…looks to me like you’re fixin’ to lay it all on me.”

Having regained his feet, Scott physically parted the two men by stepping between them. “I think we all need to calm down!  This isn’t helping Johnny,” he declared, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the heavy breathing of the two battling men.

Harlan Garrett was even more vocal in expressing his impatience with the two jousting marines.  “While you gentlemen — and I use the term facetiously — lay blame and spit fury, I think I shall turn my attention to the person most in need of it,” he exclaimed, turning on his heel to march from the room to the sounds of renewed shouting.

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

After he had bolted from the open French doors, Harlan had seen Johnny head straight for the barn, not the one that had been converted into a garage and shop; but the big one that still housed the horses used on the ranch.  Even as a small child, Johnny had found comfort and shelter there.

The earthy smells of hay and horse apples made Harlan’s nose twitch as he entered the shadowy interior.  Looking around, he spied Johnny leaning against the side railings on the far side of a large stall where a markedly calm palomino stood; the animal’s head resting against the boy’s left shoulder.

Retrieving a snowy white handkerchief from his inside coat pocket, the elderly man sniffled a bit as he rubbed at his nose.  In spite of the action, he never took his knowing eyes off of Johnny; even though the youth was trying his best to pretend he was still alone.  Harlan stood his ground, saying nothing; content just to watch.

Johnny began to squirm under the intensity of the older man’s steady gaze; which seemed somehow more severe now that Garrett, — who had had LASIK eye surgery just before the Christmas Holidays — no longer wore his bi-focal glasses.  That was another change he had been confronted with at Christmas.  He had been expecting kindly, grandfatherly looking Ha to greet him at the lodge instead this GQ looking gentleman that was there.  Johnny sighed, thinking, why did things have to change?  It was hard talk to someone you didn’t feel familiar with anymore…like somehow you had become disconnected.  It was even worse knowing everyone was busy fighting about or judging him.   All of a sudden he felt alone and bitter and the taste of it soured his words.  “Why don’t you just fuck off, Mr. Garrett?” 

In spite of the crude language, the older man smiled.   “When did you quit calling me Ha, Johnny?” he asked softly, wisely refusing to fuel the boy’s discontent by commenting to his vulgarity.  It had been at Christmas, he knew, when the boy was already showing signs of being unhappy and particularly fractious.

Johnny sighed heavily and his bottom lip trembled ever so slightly as he fought to control the emotions that threatened to overwhelm and embarrass him in front of an adult that had been one of few stable influences in his young life.  Swallowing convulsively at the tightening of his throat, he blinked rapidly against the growing sensation of warmth pooling in his eyes when Harlan sat down on a hay bale and patted it in invitation for Johnny to join him.

“Come tell Ha what has you so determined to rebel and walk on the wild side, so to speak,” the older man cajoled as Johnny finally dropped down beside him.  Harlan’s heart clenched in sympathy at the despondent posture of the youth, his head bowed down; chin to chest and his arms protectively hugging his sides.  Kindly ignoring Johnny’s loss of control, Ha folded the handkerchief he had been holding in his hand and placed it in Johnny’s.  Noting the slight shiver in the meagerly attired teenager, Harlan removed his suit jacket and wrapped it around the boy’s shoulders, thinking not only would it keep him warm, it would also conceal the raunchy ink drawing the others were busy arguing over.

After swiping at his eyes with the linen square, Johnny’s fidgeting fingers pulled at the threads of the fancy embroidered G in the corner of the cloth. He sighed again when Ha began to soothingly rub his back. The tender gesture was just enough to crack the substantial pressure of trying to understand life, and Johnny sought release in the same place he had always found it when he was younger and on the outs with his Gramps or his father.  “Why does everyone have to change?  Why can’t people and things just stay like they used to be?” Turning to look into the eyes of his second Grandfather, Jelly being the first; Johnny added, “You don’t even look like a grandpa anymore without your glasses.”  He leaned into the older man’s touch.  “Just wish I was twenty-one; that’s all.  Nobody tellin’ me what to do…”

Harlan fought hard to not laugh outright at what he was hearing.  “For a young man with exceptional eyesight you certainly are blind to some matters. I think perhaps what you mean is why can’t people and things stay the way you are used to them being.  You can’t have it both ways; people and things around you not changing, but you moving on.”

“Life is about changes, son.”  Smiling indulgently when this drew a sad huff from Johnny, Harlan continued, “It may seem like you’re going to be too young to do the things you want to do forever, but believe me; one morning you’ll wake up and wonder where did all the time go?  You’ll think you are being held in place by the very people who are changing right before your eyes, changing without any regards to how it affects you.”

Another impatient harrumph from the younger man.  “I don’t think that…I KNOW it!” Johnny exclaimed as he gave in to his need for sympathy and comfort and scooted down to lay his head on Ha’s thigh, wrapping the older man’s jacket securely to his chest as though shielding his heart.  The gratification was instantaneous as Ha began to card his fingers through Johnny’s hair.  He began to pour out his heart.  “Scott would rather go off with his SEAL buddies when he has time off.  And last year, other than family vacations, I didn’t hear from Dad unless I got into trouble.”  He sighed.  “And now Gramps spends more time with that bitch Angeline than he does me. And you… I used to be able to look at your eyes through your glasses and see what you were seein’ reflected in them.  I know it sounds stupid but it was like being part of you, seein’ the same thing you were seein’ through your eyes.”

Harlan’s face softened even more, as did his words.  “Johnny, do you honestly feel anyone loves you less? I don’t need to wear my glasses to share what I am seeing with you.  We can stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder to do that. Now for your other complaints; you’re forgetting Scott is six years old than you, he needs time with people his age just as you do.  I happen to know that your father checks on you weekly, sometimes daily but more times than not he talks to Jelly because you’re out busy doing teenage stuff.”  He inhaled.  “As for Jelly, that man put his life on hold to raise you.  You’ll be leaving for college in a year; do you want to leave him all alone?  Wouldn’t you prefer he have a life beyond sitting around the ranch waiting for a visit from you?”  Ha wisely pointed out, leaning over so he could see into Johnny’s eyes.

Begrudgingly, Johnny shook his head; just a bit.  “Well… you’re makin’ a few good points; ‘cept for that part about Jelly.  I don’t care if he has friends, just not that gold digging Ferris bitch!  There’s no telling how many old coots she’s fucked trying to turn a dollar,” he argued, stubbornly refusing to concede on that.  Knowing Ha wouldn’t agree with him, he turned his head and stared out the open barn doors, his view of the mountains beyond blocked by the Garrett Enterprises helicopter.  For a brief moment he wished he was a bird or a plane, so he could escape the problems that shackled him here and simply taking flight.

Two of Harlan’s fingers lightly tapped Johnny’s mouth, and then he said, “Young man, you do know I’m not going to continue to tolerate that vulgar language.  I’m sure you recall it was one of the few things over the years I would correct you for, and that is not going to change.”   Grasping Johnny’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, Ha turned the youth’s head until the boy was looking up into his eyes.  His expression hardened, becoming more severe; a clear indication the lecture was going to continue without interruption.  “Your father, brother, Gramps and I, love you too much to put up with anymore of your hare brained schemes and foolishness, John.  We have all willingly done whatever we felt necessary the past sixteen years to keep you safe and we will continue to do so for the next three years, until you’re legal.”  A spark of mischief lit Harlan’s eyes as he added, “And even after you turn twenty-one, I reserve the right to call you on the carpet when I think you need it.  After all it is a grandfather’s prerogative.”

It wouldn’t be long before that prerogative would be exercised.


Scott entered the Great Room, a smile lighting the pale eyes as he saw his father standing at the fax machine behind his desk.  Today is the day, he thought.  The great adventure.  In less than an hour, he, Johnny and his father would be on their way to Los Angeles.

Today was Johnny’s first appointment with the plastic surgeon that would be removing the tattoos.  No more monkeys, he mused.  Once again, his kid brother was actually going to be able to venture out of the house without so much as a t-shirt.

“Sir,” he called out in greeting.

Murdoch turned slightly to face his son, holding his hand up and indicating that the younger man should remain silent.  His cell phone was pressed against his right ear, and he was pulling sheets from the receive tray as he spoke in hushed tones.  When the conversation concluded, he stood for a time, staring out the arched window; as if gathering himself.  Finally, he turned completely around; a sheaf of papers in his hand.  “Paul,” he said.  “Paul O’Brien’s humvee struck an IED at 0800 hours yesterday morning in Afghanistan.  He didn’t make it.”

Scott crossed the room to the desk.  “Dad, I’m sorry.”  Paul O’Brien and Murdoch had enlisted together, and although their career paths had often led them in different directions; they had remained close friends.  A bad marriage and a troublesome wife had caused O’Brien problems that on two occasions had prevented him from making rank; but the man had persevered.

He had also raised a daughter as sole custodial parent.

Murdoch was massaging his right temple.  “You know that Paul’s daughter, Teresa, is my god-child.”

Scott’s head came up and he felt his right eye twitching.  Paul and his daughter had often joined the Lancer clan on occasional family outings.  The girl had been adorable when she was a small child, but somewhat of a brat as she got older.  “And…” he asked.

“…and Paul has named me as her legal guardian.”  He hefted the stack of papers he had taken from the fax machine.  “She’s the same age as Johnny,” he continued.

“And…” Scott asked a second time, the volume rising.

“Teresa will be arriving here at Lancer prior to Paul’s funeral in Sacramento.”  Murdoch had placed the papers in a neat stack on his desk.  “After the funeral, she will be coming back here to stay.”

Scott’s eyes closed momentarily.  The idea of two teenagers in the same house was enough to make him reconsider having taken compassionate leave.  “Sir, I’ve been thinking that it’s about time to confirm what my next posting will be.”

Murdoch looked across at his elder son, and smiled.  “That’s already been taken care of, son.”  The smile grew.  “I was going to save it as a surprise.”

Just then, Johnny came walking through the doors.   He had intended to bitch about the clothes Maria had laid out for him, but changed his mind.  “What surprise?” he asked.

“You’re brother has been assigned here as my adjutant,” Murdoch answered.

Johnny clapped his brother on the back.  “Whooee,” he crowed.  “No sh… kidding!”  He caught himself just as Harlan Garrett came into the room.

Harlan was carrying a briefcase; which he handed off to Scott.  “You can deliver these for me to Stefanos?”

Scott nodded.  He turned again to his father.  “About our trip to Los Angeles, sir?  I’ve got the ‘copter prepped and we can leave any time.  Our…” he grinned across at his brother, “…appointment is at ten.”

Johnny sighed.  He knew better than to argue.  Truth be told, he was getting pretty tired of Maria forever tugging at his shirt to look at the damned tattoo and then smacking his ass with that fuckin’ spoon if he wasn’t fast enough to get away.  He turned to his brother.  “I’ll take Ha’s briefcase and stow it in the chopper.  Ain’t like we got all day, you know.”

Murdoch glanced at his younger son.  Night and day, he thought to himself.  The boy was actually smiling.  “Good idea, son,” he said.  His gaze shifted to Harlan, and the two men sharing a smile as the elderly Bostonian mouthed an encouraging ‘One day at a time…’

The General made a shooing motion with his hands.  “Proceed,” he ordered, ushering his sons towards the front door.  “I need to speak with Cip and Frank before we leave…”

To Adventures In Brother Keeping

Southernfrau and Kit Prate (I bow to the creator; I just came along for the ride!)
October 2009


The Lancer, A New Century Series
Authors’ note about the series here

Grief In My Sorrow
The Long Trip Home
Adventures in Brother-Keeping
Trouble in the Air



Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. You can do so using the ‘reply’ box below. If you would like to comment directly, then you can email Kit 


One thought on “The Long Trip Home by Southernfrau and Kit

  1. I didn’t know if I would like this AR story but I’ve ended up LOVING it! I’m so happy there’s more. Thank you so much for sharing your writing with us Lancer lovers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: