Word Count 2,785
A tag for The High Riders
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Scott Lancer approached the door to his new brother’s bedroom with uncharacteristic indecision. It had been a wild couple of days since he arrived from back East. His curiosity about his previously unknown father had drawn him to California, not the promise of a thousand dollars he frankly didn’t need. He had come, intending to see the man, refuse his money and leave again. He hadn’t voiced that intent out loud to anyone but if he was honest with himself, and he always was, that was the way it had played out in his mind dozens of times on the cross-country journey.
But before he had a chance to make this point to his father, strange and unexpected things had started to happen. First, he found out he had a younger brother. And not just any old brother. A gunfighter, taken from their father as a baby, who had no recollection of the man either. An only child until that moment, Scott had secretly longed for a brother all his life. Granted, this was definitely not the little brother he’d imagined. Nevertheless, the surprise made him reassess his plan, or at least delay it.
He and the brother had been driven to their father’s ranch, called Lancer, by a pretty young girl who said she was Murdoch Lancer’s ward. Theresa stopped the wagon on a ridge overlooking the estate house and the view had left him speechless. The gunfighter too. They had both been impressed and… well, awed, by the beauty of it, and the fact that everything as far as they could see belonged to the man who had summoned them here, their father.
After that, events just kept interfering with his plan to figuratively spit in the eye of the parent who had not even bothered to see him since he was born. Murdoch Lancer had been badly wounded by “land pirates” a while back, a term Scott had never even heard before. The old man needed his sons to help him fight off the threat and offered an equal partnership in Lancer as the reward if they prevailed. Scott was tempted by the challenge, and being brutally honest once again, the chance to show to his father what he had missed by ignoring him all these years. But as the three men worked together to defeat their enemy…something gave way inside his heart and unbelievably, he found himself caring, about this man, this place, even this unlikely younger brother fate had suddenly handed him.
The brother, he called himself Johnny Madrid, had been injured in the fight. When Johnny had been shot off his horse by Pardee’s men as he raced toward the house, Scott reacted instinctively. He headed out amid the gunfire, and got Johnny to safety. Thankfully, the boy’s injury was not too serious, although the local doctor had confined him to bed for a few days. That hadn’t gone down well with the younger man and Theresa and the housekeeper had each come from his room in tears over the last two days when he insisted he just needed to be left alone to regain his strength so he could leave.
Murdoch had visited the younger son several times each day but he hadn’t tried to convince him to stay. When Scott asked why, Murdoch replied that Johnny was a grown man and needed to make up his own mind about where he wanted to be. He’d offered a third of this ranch, now it was up to the son to decide whether he wanted it.
Scott had a growing admiration for the man, for what he’d built here, and the heartaches he’d survived, but in this case, he thought Murdoch was dead wrong. Scott was certain Johnny was younger than he seemed, given what he’d learned about the timing of his father’s second marriage. Scott thought he was younger, and far less certain of his place here than Murdoch understood. So tonight, Scott planned to try it his way.
He overrode his hesitation and rapped twice on the bedroom door.
Scott shook his head and then opened the door. “I think the standard response is ‘Come in,’” he said as he entered.
“That’s only if ya want whoever is knockin’ to come in,” the younger man retorted.
“Oh, I see we’re feeling better.”
“We? You get shot too?”
Scott smiled, refusing to be baited. “I thought you might like some company.”
“Well, the doctor said you need another few days of bed rest and sitting here alone can’t be all that much fun,” Scott said. He and Murdoch had each dropped off books they thought the boy might like. Johnny had glanced at them but they didn’t seem to hold his interest. They’d also brought up the chessboard that was now sitting, set up, on a table by the window. That hadn’t captured his interest either.
“I ain’t planning to be in this bed for a couple more days, Boston. By tomorrow, I oughta be ready to move on.”
Scott’s eyebrows rose slightly but he didn’t give voice to his thoughts.
Johnny seemed uncomfortable with the silence and ploughed on. “The old man said I could keep the horse,” he added, somewhat defensively.
Scott nodded. “He’s a beauty. Can’t say I blame you for taking him.” He privately thought that Murdoch probably should have held back on that offer. It likely would have kept the boy here for now.
An awkward silence descended on the room. It stretched on for close to a minute before Johnny felt compelled to speak again. “So… did ya want somethin’?”
“I did. But it’s not important now. I’d like to know why you’re in such a hurry to leave though.” As he said this, he took a seat in the armchair next to the bed.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed with a silent warning to back off and not make himself comfortable but the older brother seemed not to notice. He continued to gaze at Johnny as if he had a right to expect an answer. It unnerved the younger man, who was used to being able to stare down hardened gunfighters, let alone a fancy pants from Boston, wherever the heck that was. “Why do ya wanna know?”
Scott stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well… I don’t think I’m likely to find out I have any other brothers so I’d like the chance to get to know the one I do have.”
Scott’s temper rose briefly, then he tamped it back down. The repeated “why” reminded him of the younger brother of an old school friend. Josh had been driven to distraction by incessant “why” questions from his younger bother, Davey. Only Davey was about five years old at the time as Scott recalled. The latter thought made him smile.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. But to answer your original question, I think if we talked a bit we might find out we have some things in common.”
Johnny snorted derisively. “Like what?”
Scott’s patience with the endless questions was starting to run down. “Let’s see. Well, the first thing would be—“
“Don’t say we share the old man’s blood,” the younger man interrupted angrily. “I don’t consider that a good thing for either of us.”
Scott paused. “Noted. I was going to say we’re both good with horses.”
Johnny reluctantly shrugged his agreement. He’d been extremely impressed by the other man’s riding ability and found himself liking the comparison.
“We’re both good marksmen, although with different weapons,” Scott continued. When Johnny seemed unsure what that meant, he added, “We’re both pretty good shots.”
Again, Johnny shrugged his acquiescence to that statement. “I’m better than pretty good, but okay. Got anything else?”
“We both like beef….”
“Eatin’, not herdin’!”
“I’m with you there, brother,” Scott answered with a smile. He thought he saw the boy’s mouth turn up at the corners momentarily before he forced his expression to neutral again.
“You’re scrapin’ the bottom of the barrel now, Boston.”
“Oh, I’m not through yet.” Scott replied, leaning back in his chair. “We were both born in California.”
Johnny nodded. That was something, given that they had grown up so far apart. But he worked hard not to let his brother see he scored with that one.
Scott continued. “You go by the name Madrid….”
Johnny’s gaze snapped up and caught his brother’s eye with renewed wariness.
“…and I’ve been there.”
Johnny laughed despite himself. “That’s a good one, Boston,” he said. Then his eyebrows rose in curiosity. “Ya really been there, to Madrid?”
“Yes. When I graduated from Harvard, a couple of friends and I took the grand tour of Europe, visited all the major capitals. Madrid was one of them.”
“Yeah? What was it like?”
“Memorable. To be honest, though, there was a revolution going on and none of us wanted to see any more war so we got on a ship bound for Italy as soon as we could. I remember it as impressive, unpredictable, and dangerous.” It suddenly struck him that could describe this young man and he idly wondered how he’d come to pick that name for himself.
“Sounds like my kind of place,” Johnny said.
“Yes, it might be. On the other hand, I think this could be your kind of place, if you just give it a chance.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed again. “Why?”
An image of this brother of his as he might have looked at the age of five flashed through Scott’s mind. “Because it’s our family home. It’s where… well, where we both may belong. I think it’s worth finding out anyway.”
The boy shook his head vigorously. “I don’t fit here—“
“I don’t fit here even more than you, but I’m willing to give it a try.”
“No, I’m the one don’t fit—“
“I beg to differ. I think if you asked anyone here, they’d say I’m the one who won’t make it,” Scott responded with fervor.
“You’re wrong, You’re the perfect son, the one anybody’d be happy to claim. The old man ain’t gonna want to be introducin’ me to his friends.”
“Well, he may not want to introduce me to his ranch hands, at least not as someone they’ll have to work beside. They probably think a single day of hard work will have me running for the next eastbound train. But… we’ll just have to figure out how to live together, how to make this work.”
Johnny stared back at him in consternation. “You’re one stubborn cuss, you know that, Boston?”
“There you go!”
Johnny looked confused. “What’s that?”
“Another thing we have in common!” Scott said, smiling with satisfaction.
Johnny laughed involuntarily. “I think there’s probably three of us ‘round here who have that in common.”
Scott nodded. “You’re right. If we get to know our father, we’ll probably find we both take after him in some ways. Of course, we’ll have to stick around long enough to know for sure…”
Johnny frowned slightly, not sure why that idea had even occurred to him. He’d flirted briefly with the idea of staying when the battle had ended but stuck in this bed the past couple of days, he realized he was fooling himself. Everything he owned was in his saddlebags. The distance from his life to this place, with its clean sheets and household help, and crystal glasses on the supper table, was farther than he could stretch. They gave him books with words he didn’t know in them, and set up a checker board with strange pieces he’d never seen before. Nothing in his life had prepared him for a home like this, or a family like… He shook his head, not wanting to go there. “You heard him. I got a temper from my mother. And stubborn from him. It ain’t likely he’s hopin’ I stay now that Pardee’s gone—“
A knock on the door captured both of their attention. Almost in unison, both young men responded, “Come in!”
Scott smiled slightly. The boy was a quicker study than he had even hoped. The door opened and their father stuck his head in. Scott started to stand but Murdoch waved him back into the chair.
“Everything okay in here?”
“Yes, sir,” Scott replied. “I thought you’d gone to bed.”
Murdoch nodded. “I had, but then I realized you were both in here… together.” He lifted something in his left hand. “I picked this up in town today. I thought you might want to have a drink together.” He limped into the room, still favoring his injured leg, and handed Scott a liquor bottle. “It’s tequila,” he said, looking at Johnny. “You said you favored it. And … we didn’t have any in the house.”
Johnny was surprised into speechlessness by the gesture so Murdoch continued.
“I thought you might like to introduce your brother to tequila before….” His voice trailed off and he looked like he’d stepped in something. “Anyway, I thought you might want to be the one to break Scott in with the local libation of choice.”
Johnny nodded, touched by the old man’s gesture. Something inside him prodded him. “I was thinkin’ there’s a few things old Boston here’s gonna need to learn ‘bout livin’ in these parts,” he blurted, surprising even himself with his next words. “I—I guess I’ll stick around and help him…… for a while anyway.”
Scott and Murdoch exchanged a fleeting glance, then both of them returned their attention to the younger man, who looked like he was trying to figure out who’d said what they’d all just heard.
“Johnny, that’s… that’s wonderful! I’m—I’m very pleased you’ve reconsidered,” Murdoch said.
“Wellllll…,” he stalled, trying to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t make him look sentimental or soft. “I probably won’t find out I got any other brothers so I might as well stick around and get to know this ‘un.”
Scott pressed his lips together to keep a smile from erupting at the fact the boy had blatantly stolen that line from him. Instead he nodded gravely and looked at Murdoch, sending him a silent message with his eyes. “The man’s right,” he said. “I was just telling him how most people in the area are probably already betting I won’t last. I could use his help.”
Murdoch caught the look and instead of protesting, he agreed immediately. “Yes, it will be a real blessing to have Johnny around to show you the ropes.”
Johnny flushed at the unexpected and unusual experience of praise for something other than his fast gun.
“Would you like to join us, sir?” Scott asked, gathering a couple of water glasses from the side table.
“No,” Murdoch responded. He leaned heavily on his cane but the smile on his face said his worries were lighter than when he’d come in. “I’m ready for my bed. You boys… enjoy getting to know each other. Just don’t forget morning comes early in these parts.”
“No, sir. Good night,” Scott said. He cast Johnny a sideways glance.
Oh, g’night,” the boy echoed, realizing what the older brother was trying to tell him.
Murdoch left and an uneasy silence fell between them. Scott tried to think of something to say, to regain the easy relationship they had started to establish with each other. He looked around the room and his eyes fell on the younger man’s clothes, folded over a chair near the window.
“I thought of something else we have in common,” he said, eying the coral shirt and studded pants.
Johnny looked relieved the conversation had started again, and took the bait. “What’s that?”
“We’re both pretty sharp dressers. Of course, you’re a lot more… colorful than me.”
Johnny grinned slyly. “Oh, I don’t know ‘bout that, Boston. Them plaid pants were pretty colorful. I guess that’s somethin’ else we got in common!”
Scott almost couldn’t help the fleeting look of shock that crossed his face but his younger brother didn’t notice it. Instead he opened the bottle of tequila and began to pour.
“Now, first thing ya gotta learn is how to eat the worm. It’s a matter of etiquette…”
Scott’s eyebrows rose in alarm. “Worm? What worm?” Johnny held the bottle up to the light. “You have to eat the worm?…. What time is the next eastbound train anyway?”
In his room down the hall, Murdoch Lancer smiled, hearing the raucous laughter of his younger boy followed by a genuine deeper guffaw from his firstborn. He wasn’t sure what these two very different young men would find in common, but he hoped some day soon they’d both be certain of one – they both had a father who loved them.
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