Word Count 34,319
With deep gratitude to Sherry and Diana.
“Do you really reckon that’s him?” Randy Houston shoved the weathered wanted poster toward the pistolero sitting beside him on a stack of hay bales outside the Morro Coyo livery, his hand shaking with excitement. The gunfighter didn’t divert his eyes from observing the visibly more drunken of the three men arguing in front of the saloon across the street. He’d memorized every inch of the wanted poster over the last week; the pistolero’s description, the $1,000 reward with its strict conditions, even the date the poster was created – four years earlier.
“Yup, I’m sure. Now, you’d best put that poster away, Randy, before someone else sees it and grabs up the reward first.”
The teenager had the creased poster refolded and in his pocket in seconds. “How are we gonna do this? Should I saddle the horses to follow them? Or do we wanna get him right here in town in case the money has to come from the bank?”
“Hold your horses. We ain’t doing anything until he’s alone. Let’s see how this argument pans out. If we’re lucky those two will leave without him.”
Sure enough, three minutes later, their topic of interest yanked his arm away from one of the men trying to guide him away from the saloon, cursing them to hell, and stumbled back through the batwing doors.
“Yes!” Randy practically shouted.
“Shh! Don’t let them hear you! They’re coming this way. Don’t look at them or pay them any mind. Not a word until they’re long gone.”
The two men untied three saddled horses from the hitching rail in front of the saloon and began to lead them across the road toward the livery. The younger cowboy was tall and lean, towering several inches over the older man at his side. Their voices carried as they came closer.
“Murdoch will go through the roof, us leaving him here, already stone-cold drunk in the middle of the week,” the tall blond frowned in frustration.
“I know, but short of trussin’ the boy up like a Thanksgiving turkey and tossin’ him over his saddle, I don’t know what the Boss expects us to do,” replied the older man.
“I’ll at least get his horse settled in the livery. I don’t think he’ll be going anywhere for a few hours, if not a few days.”
“I jes’ hope he don’t go nowhere near Bonnie Winters again. Her Pa was so mad after he found them in the barn, he was two steps from puttin’ a pound of buckshot in the boy. You know I don’t want ta say a word against the Boss, but if he ken’t get the boy under control, he’s gonna lose him all over again.”
Randy was practically vibrating with anticipation by the time the two men rode out of town a few minutes later. “Let’s go!”
“We aren’t going anywhere, Randy. You would stick out in the saloon like a sore thumb, which is the last thing we need. You’re going to give me the wanted poster and then head home to your Momma. If the wanted poster is still good after all these years, I’ll bring the money to you.”
The look of betrayal on the teenager’s face presaged his right hand going for the pistol hanging awkwardly on his skinny hip. A strong hand clamped on his before he’d even gotten halfway there, and yanked him around the corner of livery, out of sight of the street.
“Don’t even think about it! If I had wanted to cheat you out of the reward money, I’ve had a dozen chances to shoot you and grab the poster.” The pistolero leaned against the barn, pulling off one boot without letting go of the youth’s hand. “Here’s a hundred dollars. You can keep it even if the reward ain’t good. You have my word I’ll get the rest to you, if it is.”
The boy stared into the cool eyes for a long moment, before reluctantly grabbing the money with his left hand. “All right, but you’d better, or I’ll come looking for you.”
“I’m quaking in my boots,” the gunfighter muttered.
Scott Lancer moaned as an arrow of light pierced his brain. He turned his head away and tried to bury his face into Celia’s pillow. Celia, that was the girl from last night, wasn’t it? Maybe Selena… no, Selena was in Green River, and Scott was pretty sure he was in Morro Coyo.
Too much thinking for this early in the morning.
“Close the damn curtains!” he groaned.
“Time to get up, Lancer,” replied a distinctly male voice.
Scott quickly rolled off the bed in the opposite direction from the voice, grabbing for his pistol he knew was nowhere within reach. If he remembered correctly, they hadn’t gotten as far as the bed before an amorous Celia –yes, he was quite sure that was her name– had relieved him of his gunbelt… and his pants. Tangled in the bedclothes, he ended up on his ass on the floor, painfully aware that the pleasant memory of their previous night’s interlude might well be the last memory he ever had.
Not that it mattered.
At least it would be over then.
Scott looked over at the man who lounged in a chair on the other side of the room, mildly surprised not to find a pistol aimed at him. His own pistol was there all right, still in its rig, laid out on the table beside his visitor, along with his rifle, hat, and wallet.
“That’s all I have of value, take it and get out!” Scott ordered, wishing he wasn’t buck naked in front of this stranger. He glanced around to be sure Celia wasn’t still there, preferring to believe she had betrayed him over finding her hurt by the intruder.
“The girl had nothing to do with this and is fine,” The stranger seemed to read his mind as he tossed Scott’s discarded clothes over. “Get dressed, we have business to discuss.”
Scott stood unsteadily, clutching the sheet to himself, his head and stomach roiling from the night’s aftermath. He picked up his clothes from where they’d landed at the bottom of the bed, not missing the smirk on his visitor’s face as he turned around to dress.
“I don’t do business with roustabouts who break into my room while I’m sleeping.”
“What the hell is a ‘roustabout’?”
Scott sighed as he buckled his belt, wishing he had privacy to use the chamber pot. He certainly didn’t need this guy’s snarky humor on top of his hangover and bursting bladder. Turning on his best Lt. Lancer glare, he snapped, “Okay, I’m dressed, now what the hell do you want?”
“Grouchy, ain’t ya?” A head nod toward the door, “Go take care of your… morning needs. l’ll wait. Not long, and don’t be an idiot and do anything but come back…alone.”
Sorely tempted to lunge across the room and strangle the smirk off the young man’s face, Scott’s bladder –and no small amount of curiosity– convinced him to make the round trip to the privy. When he returned, a pot of coffee and two cups had been added to the table. Scott grabbed up the nearest one and took several healthy swallows, now thinking he might like this odd intruder, after all.
As Scott sat in the unoccupied chair, his visitor shook open a folded piece of paper, and laid it in front of him.
“Is this still good?”
Scott’s eyes dropped to the wrinkled poster, and he froze, all color draining from his face.
“Well?” The testy question came.
Scott’s gaze was riveted to the wanted poster, his stomach churning and threatening to give back the coffee he’d just swallowed.
After all these years…
The bold typeset blurred under a surge of adrenalin, but Scott didn’t need to be able to make out the letters, he knew every word by heart:
Alive and Well Only
Age 15, black hair, blue eyes
Morro Coyo, California
“You… you have him? Is he all right?” Scott stuttered, his hangover forgotten.
“Is the reward still good? This thing is four years old.”
“Yes! As long as he’s okay. It says ‘alive and well only’!” Scott grabbed the man’s arm and suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of a Colt. He sat back slowly, raising his hands in submission. “Yes, it’s still valid. Please tell me you have him and he’s okay.”
Scott lifted his eyes pleadingly, and registered for the first time that the eyes that stared back from beneath the brim of a tilted cowboy hat were blue.
A deep, rich sapphire blue like he’d never seen before.
But had been described to him a thousand times.
“Johnny,” he whispered. “It’s you, isn’t it, little brother?”
The gun had not moved. The expression on the face above it was remote, shuttered.
“So just what do you think you’re buying with your $1,000, Señor Lancer?” The question was caustic.
It took Scott a moment to even hear it. He couldn’t believe that after all these years, his brother was finally sitting in front of him! When the piercing glare finally sliced its way through his amazement, he stuttered, “My brother… well, not buy him…you. I want to get to know you, to bring my little brother home.”
“There’s nothing about me that you want to know, rich boy,” Johnny said tightly. “The poster only says Johnny Madrid, alive and well. Here I am. It says nothing about staying. Pay up.”
Scott stared back at Johnny, dumbfounded. It couldn’t be that he could find his brother only to have Johnny walk away! He’d dreamed, ever since he was ten and found out he had a brother, about bringing his brother home. All the things they could do together; ranching, riding, wrestling like his childhood friends did with their brothers. He couldn’t lose that chance. He just couldn’t!
He took another sip of his coffee, using the time to tamp down his big brother emotions and to bring Lt. Lancer’s keen strategic mind to the forefront. He leaned back in his chair, regarding the unwavering stare from across the table.
“What would your ‘staying’ fee be?”
He caught a flicker of surprise in the blue eyes before it was carefully hidden away.
“Ain’t got one. Not an option.”
“Come now, surely a seasoned gunfighter such as yourself has hired on to long-term assignments before; range wars, protection details, bounty hunts…”
“I ain’t no bounty hunter!”
“… says the young man sitting across from me asking for a $1,000 reward on a wanted poster…” Scott quirked an insolent brow.
In the following silence, Scott couldn’t tell if Johnny was fighting off a smile, or the urge to shoot him. He gambled on the former.
“Common’ Johnny, give your long-lost big brother a break. I’ll pay you another $1,000 for a week of your time. Call it a protection detail, or listening money, however you want to look at it.”
Scott felt the chill of the Madrid stare he’d read about in dime-store novels, and fought down an involuntary shiver. But he didn’t avert his gaze. This was a staring contest he could not afford to lose.
It lasted forever. Scott could swear he could hear the ticking of the clock in the downstairs saloon in the oppressive silence.
Then, finally, it came.
“My rules. One, the reward and half the listening money up front.”
Scott nodded, his heart threatening to burst out of his chest.
“Two, we’re not going near Lancer –the ranch or the old man– and not staying in town.”
Scott was definitely fine with that, dealing with Murdoch’s reaction –whatever the hell it might be– would be a thing of its own.
“And, last, I’m doin’ the listenin’, not the talkin’, and when the week is up, you pay me, and I’m gone. Without you, or anyone else, coming after me.”
Oh, that was a hard one.
Could he really let Johnny just walk out of his life again? He was already on the edge –part way over, if the truth be told. Finding and losing his brother would kill him. He knew that.
Jesus, it’s like he’s reading my mind! Scott thought as he saw something flash in Johnny’s eyes.
But there wasn’t a choice. Either he agreed, or Johnny would walk out on him the second he paid the reward.
Schooling his expression, Scott stuck his right hand out toward the pistol that hadn’t wavered once throughout the entire conversation. “Agreed.”
Johnny stood up, re-holstering his pistol, but shoving Scott’s wallet into his offered hand. “Get to the bank and have the money wired to…Modesto, so we ain’t carrying a wad of cash. I’ll meet you at the turn-off to Glen River in an hour.”
Then he was gone.
Johnny Madrid figured this whole thing was probably a very bad idea. Hell, he knew it was.
If it hadn’t been for a scrawny teenager named Randy –with balls as big as a bull’s and a sob story that could cry you a river– pulling a gun on him as he stopped at a watering hole outside Cross Creek, he’d be miles away from this godforsaken town, and the powder keg that was his big brother, Scott Lancer.
He’d known he was being followed for miles, and had even known it was only a kid doing the following. He could have easily ditched the kid, or circled around and gotten the jump on him. But an old friend, Val Crawford, once told Johnny his curiosity would be his undoing, and it seemed the grumpy gunfighter-turned-sheriff was right. So, instead of doing either of those things, he’d let the boy, who couldn’t be more than thirteen, “sneak up” on him, and even get as far as pulling the damn excuse for a gun on him, a rusty thing that more than likely would blow off the kid’s hand if he tried to use it.
“Mr Madrid, I’m gonna have to ask ya to get your hands up high in the air.”
Johnny casually leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, not raising his hands, but not making any sudden moves either.
“Now, why is that?” he drawled, as he looked the bedraggled boy over.
“I got a wanted poster here on ya and I intend to collect the reward.”
“Really? Didn’t know there was a wanted poster out on me. What am I supposed to have done?”
The boy frowned, “I, uh, don’t rightly know… don’t think it says.” He pulled a folded paper out of his pocket, trying to read it without taking his eyes, or gun, off of Johnny. “Nope, don’t say.”
“Hmm. That’s a bit suspicious, don’t you think? I’ve never heard of a wanted poster that didn’t say what the person was wanted for. How can I defend myself, if I don’t even know what I am supposed to have done wrong?”
The youth seemed to consider for a moment, before straightening. “I guess that’s between you and the law.”
Johnny carefully folded his arms across his chest, staying well away from his low-slung gun. “What state is it from? It could be a long ride if you have to turn me in, say, in Nevada.”
“It’s California,” the confidence returned to the boy’s voice, “Morro Coyo, and that’s not even far from here.”
Johnny’s growing smile faded, replaced by a tight thin line at hearing the name of the town where Murdoch Lancer lived. “Then I know it’s a mistake, kid.” His voice was now hard and cold. “Ain’t never been there since I was two. Unless I’m wanted for not putting away my blocks, I’m afraid your poster’s a fake. Go home, and have your Pa show you how to clean that gun before it explodes on you.”
As Johnny turned to get Diablo’s reins, the teenager poked the gun toward him for emphasis, shouting, “I said, put your…” He got no further, as Johnny swung around, grabbed the gun away, and gave the kid a shove into the dirt.
“I said, ‘Go home!’,” Johnny snarled, grabbing up the poster from where it had fallen during the scuffle, “The thing’s a damn fake and coulda gotten you killed. You can’t just go up to a gunfighter and expect him to go with you because you have a rusty peashooter and an attitude bigger than your brain!”
As he started to toss the poster onto the boy, the name “Lancer” screamed up at him.
Why would the man who threw him and his mother out seventeen years ago offer a reward to get him back? And a pretty decent reward at that, a thousand dollars.
‘Alive and Well Only?’ Who the hell puts that on a wanted poster?
His eyes were drawn to the name that preceded the surname Johnny swore he’d never use.
The old man’s name is Murdoch. Maybe it’s a grandfather or an uncle?
Johnny lost himself for a moment in the thought that he might have a relative out there. More, a relative who might want him, who was actually willing to pay $1,000 to see him alive and well? After his mother had been murdered, he’d just assumed the only relative left was the old man he’d promised her escaping soul he’d put a bullet into one day.
His musing was cut short when he realized the kid was crying. Had he gotten hurt in the fall?
As he dusted the boy off and checked him for injuries, the story, and a name, Randy Houston, came out. Randy’s father had been robbed and murdered on his way to pay off the bank note on the small farm the family owned in Camden, a new settlement ten or so miles south of Cross Creek. Randy’s mother, Sarah, had just given birth to Randy’s littlest brother, bringing the family to six. Well, five now with no father. The bank didn’t care that they’d had this terrible loss, nor that Sarah was so weak from grief and a difficult delivery that she couldn’t get out of bed. The $800 was due in eleven days or the family would be driven from the land. With no other relatives to turn to, Johnny knew the family would probably be split up. The two older boys, Derek, 15, and Randy, would be sent to work at farms, for room and board only because of their ages. The younger children might stay with Sarah, if she found a place to live. It was a big ‘if’. Options for widows with children were few. Sarah could well end up working in a saloon, in which case, the children would go to an orphanage.
Johnny promptly rode home with Randy to check on Sarah and the other children. He spent the next three days helping the older boys repair things around the farm, arranging for someone to care for Sarah and the little ones, and hatching a plan for Randy to “turn him in” for the reward money on the poster. Johnny promised Randy all of the reward money, but Randy, fair-minded boy that he was, insisted Johnny keep the $200 they didn’t need for the deed for his part in helping out with the plan. A solemn handshake sealed the deal.
Before they rode out for Morro Coyo, Johnny Madrid paid the bank manager who held the deed on the farm, one Theodore Booth, a little visit. Absently stroking the handle of his holstered revolver the whole time, Madrid expressed concern for the struggling Houston family, and his expectation that the honorable Mr Booth would take a personal interest in ensuring the grieving family had food, clothes, and grain while Madrid was tracking down the vicious murderer of Mr Houston. Of course, once that grisly deed was tended to, Madrid would return as soon as humanly possible with the stolen funds to pay off the bank note. Mr Booth certainly wouldn’t mind, would he, if it took a bit longer than the eleven days? After all, the bank would benefit far more from the $800, than from having to find a buyer for the tiny parcel of land in the struggling settlement.
Johnny strongly suspected that the not-so-honorable Mr Booth had something to do with the theft and murder, given the way the rotund man sweated and visibly squirmed as Johnny described what he planned to do to said low-life murderer. And Lee Houston wasn’t the first of the settlers to have been attacked and robbed, coincidentally, just as they had gathered enough money to pay off their bank note. After tweaking Booth further by suggesting the bank would do well to find a safer way for settlers to pay off their work deeds, Johnny silently vowed to follow through on his promise to deal with Houston’s murderer for real after getting Randy his reward money.
A neat little plan.
But Johnny had not counted on discovering a brother in the process.
A brother who had wanted him, gunhawk and all, in his life so desperately that, at the age of nineteen, he’d secretly had dozens of Wanted: Alive and Well Only posters printed up and distributed across three states.
A brother who had been abandoned by their father for the first ten years of his life, even though he wasn’t a mestizo.
A brother who was being eaten alive by some terrible demon Johnny couldn’t see, but could see the effects of, as Scott drank, gambled, and caroused his way through their first several days in Modesto. And then screamed, shouted, and fought his way through horrific nightmares every night.
Scott had insisted on securing a two bedroom-suite in the newest hotel in Modesto, the Belmont. Both brothers had lovely company the first night, until the night terrors struck, and Scott’s panicked yelling brought Johnny running with gun drawn, and sent both ladies scrambling into their clothes and out of the suite.
Once Scott was awake enough to realize where he was and what had happened, he shouted at Johnny to “get the fuck out of my room!”, then haphazardly dressed in his discarded clothing, and escaped to the private gaming room three floors below.
The next two nights followed similar patterns, minus Johnny showing up gun in hand, and with any female company gently ushered out of the suite before Scott collapsed into bed in a drunken stupor that never seemed to be deep enough to keep the nightmares at bay.
Tonight had been different, yet far more frightening to Johnny’s mind. After escorting a pair of very giggly sisters back to their room following several hours behind his closed bedroom door, Scott returned to the suite and poured himself a nightcap. He offered one to Johnny.
“I’ll pass,” Johnny waved in the direction of the departed sisters with a grin. “I’m already seeing double.”
Scott threw his head back with laughter, knocking himself off balance, then over-correcting to land less than gracefully in one of the heavily upholstered chairs. “I would have shared, you know, little brother. I’m not a greedy man.”
Johnny leaned back into his chair, a booted ankle resting across the opposite knee. “I got the impression the sisters preferred to, uh, keep each other company.”
“Ah, yes, that they did. That they did.” Scott sighed with a fond smile of remembrance.
Johnny chuckled, then rubbed his eyes. “I’m going to turn in.” He ran his eyes over Scott’s slumped form. “Unless I need to earn some of my listening money tonight.”
Despite the alcohol, Scott visibly stiffened, then sat up, downing the rest of his drink. “No, I’m for bed as well. You’re welcome to the water closet first.” He headed back to nearly depleted the bar cart.
Yet, when Johnny passed back through the sitting area on the way to his room, he saw it wasn’t more whiskey in the glass Scott toasted him goodnight with. The liquid was clear. The wet spoon left on the bar told Johnny there was likely a liberal dose of sleeping powder mixed into the water.
He hesitated in the bedroom doorway, knowing full well that sleeping powder on top of all the alcohol Scott had consumed could be deadly. Yet, it really wasn’t any of his business what Scott chose to do. He’d been hired to “listen” to whatever Scott felt the need to tell him, not to intervene in the mess of his brother’s life.
That weighted word.
Scott hadn’t actually spoken of anything significant so far. Johnny had learned that Scott’s mother had died in childbirth, and his grandfather had taken him east to Boston, initially with Lancer’s permission, to keep him safe from land pirates who were attacking ranches all along the proposed railroad spur between Stockton and Yuma. The high riders had no interest in the ranches per se, they simply wanted to be in a position to sell the land to the railroad at top dollar.
It had taken Lancer the better part of a year to fight off the land pirates, and nearly two more years to rebuild the ranch while staving off aggressive land grab attempts by the railroad. Some of the ranchers surrounding Lancer had chosen to sell out to the railroad, thus making the Lancer spread an even more lucrative target. But Lancer had never once over-extended himself financially, and was beholden to no bank or deed holder. So, in the end, he had prevailed against the railroad.
Scott mentioned that, unbeknownst to him at the time, Lancer –whom he called a rather formal, ‘Father’– had come to Boston on his fifth birthday. After the comment slid out, Scott fell silent, and somewhat sullen, without explaining why he hadn’t known of Lancer’s visit, or why it was another five years before the man brought Scott back to California.
Johnny calculated that Scott was four years older than him. Had the old man made the trip thinking he could bring Scott home to be cared for by Maria? His Mama wasn’t very good at caring for the one kid she already had; Johnny couldn’t imagine her accepting someone else’s kid with open arms. But why didn’t Lancer bring Scott home anyway, or at least visit with the kid after making the nearly seven week trip to Boston and back? Had Maria’s continued refusal to become a mother to Scott been the reason Murdoch ditched her and her mestizo brat less than a year later?
Johnny paced the sitting room, pausing periodically to look in on Scott to be sure he was still breathing. The tall blond was sprawled inelegantly on his stomach, almost sideways in the massive bed, sleeping soundly, his soft snoring allowing Johnny to confirm from a distance that he was still alive. Johnny had seen the whip mark scars on Scott’s back before he’d dressed in the hotel room in Morro Coyo, but tonight was the first time he’d noted the wide scarring across Scott’s right ankle, clearly made from spending a long time in a leg shackle. Johnny had once borne similar shackle marks on his wrists –he still bore lash marks on his back– after a three month stay in a Mexican prison. His shackle marks had faded over several months. Scott’s was still a bright purple-red, so was much more recent.
Johnny knew Scott had been a Lieutenant in the Union cavalry, so suspected Scott had spent some time in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. Several of the warnings Scott called out in his nightmares seemed to confirm that. But Scott hadn’t said, and Johnny wouldn’t ask.
Scott did talk quite a bit about his time at Harvard, an expensive school Johnny knew was back in Boston. And Scott sure had that funny Boston accent to go with his big, fancy Harvard words. No accent like that came from California, so maybe Scott had bounced back and forth across the country before the war?
There was certainly the money for it. Scott tossed money around like it was chicken feed. Funny thing, though, the guy didn’t act at all like virtually every rich person Johnny had ever met, flaunting their wealth, looking down on people who had less, and trampling those who had nothing at all. Despite his rigid posture, Scott didn’t appear to have a stuck-up bone in his body. He treated everyone with courtesy and respect, tipped lavishly, and was equally generous with his praise of the servers, cooks, and other working people. Scott’s penchant for fine things was quite visible in this elegant hotel suite, the material of the clothes he’d had to buy due to their short-notice trip, and in the quality of wines and liquor he tried unsuccessfully to drown his memories in each night. There was never an ounce of arrogance in his choices. Even when he was drunk to the gills, he was charming to the ladies –the many ladies– quick to laugh off an insult or slight, and funny as hell to watch. Johnny grinned, recalling some of the raunchy jokes Scott told outside of polite company, made even funnier coming from his usually proper and formal lips.
Johnny settled himself into an overstuffed chair which allowed him to see Scott sleeping through the cracked bedroom door. He’d spent many a night on watch as a gunfighter, so knew he wouldn’t have trouble staying awake for his vigil tonight, even though he’d had little more sleep than Scott these last several nights. Although, no other guard-duty spot had ever had padding as comfortable as this chair, which felt as if it was wrapping itself around him. Johnny grunted to himself. He might just have to swap out chairs to keep from dropping off.
His swirling thoughts, coupled with an as yet unidentified feeling, helped keep him awake through the small hours of morning. For the first time in a very long while, the famous Johnny Madrid had absolutely no idea what he should do.
As desperately as he had sworn not to, Johnny found himself starting to care a bit about this new-found brother. That was not a good thing. Gunfighters couldn’t have families, couldn’t be that vulnerable, or put loved ones at risk of reputation-seekers eager to dance with a renowned gunfighter like Johnny Madrid, no matter who else might be in the line of fire. Besides, once Scott got to know him as more than just someone to have a fun time drinking and gambling with, Johnny was quite sure he’d regret he ever made that ridiculous wanted poster, and would be glad it only cost $2,000 to get Johnny Madrid out of his life forever.
“You know, your little poster coulda gotten me killed, offering a big reward like that…” Johnny drawled, breaking off a piece of one of several sugar cookies he’d grabbed off the buffet table downstairs, and popping it into his mouth as they settled in their suite relatively early on Monday evening. Scott was amazed at his younger brother’s insatiable appetite, and had teased Johnny that the food bill was costing him more than the reward and listening money combined.
Scott cocked an eyebrow at him as he set the room key down on the console table. “How is that, little brother? It said in big letters, ‘Alive and Well Only’.”
“Most bounty hunters can’t read. They just see ‘Wanted’ and how much the reward is.”
Scott chuckled. “I guess we’re lucky Randy can read. Too bad your paths didn’t cross a few years earlier.”
“Hell, a few years earlier and I mighta drawn on the kid when he pointed that pistol at me. My reflexes were pretty hair-trigger back then.”
Scott observed his brother for a moment. “You really would have drawn on a nine year old kid?”
The look that flashed across Johnny’s face made Scott regret he’d asked. For a moment. But, in all honesty, he needed to know the answer, and so much more about his brother. He didn’t understand what made a kid become a gunfighter at thirteen, and a famous one by fifteen. Had Johnny’s hatred of their father caused him to want to kill dozens of men across four states and two countries? What had made him leave his mother at that tender age for such a deadly and lonely profession? Was his mother even still alive?
Scott flashed on Johnny’s description of thirteen year old Randy Houston, so desperate to save his family that he drew a gun on Johnny Madrid, even knowing the gunfighter’s deadly reputation. A young boy forced into the world of adulthood by a terrible tragedy which left him without a father to guide and protect him.
So, maybe Scott did understand a little.
Johnny didn’t answer him, asking instead, “When did you find out about Johnny Madrid?”
Scott took off his evening jacket, folded it, and laid it carefully across the back of the far end of the couch. He started to undo his tie.
“That summer. I was taking an extended break between my second and third years at Harvard, spending it at Lancer. I asked Father to allow me to read the latest Pinkerton report on you.”
Johnny stopped chewing and looked up. “The old man had a Pinks report on me? Why, was he afraid I was gonna hunt him down and put a bullet between his eyes?” The younger man snorted. “Not that I didn’t plan on doing just that one day. The Pinks wouldn’t have stopped me.”
Scott tossed his tie onto his jacket and unfastened his collar button. “Father hired the Pinkertons to find you right after your mother left with that gambler and took you with her…”
Scott blinked several times. What was he doing lying on the floor, and why did he feel like his jaw had collided with an anvil? He raised one hand to his pounding head as he used the other to push himself up to a sitting position. That made the room swim, so he inched over a bit to lean his back against the bottom of the couch.
Johnny was swearing at him in an enraged combination of English and Spanish, pacing back and forth a few feet away. It took a few minutes for his concussed brain to make the connection.
“Johnny…” He was relieved to find his jaw still worked, but tasted blood and felt it dripping down his chin. He fumbled for his handkerchief in his pants pocket, not an easy task with the way he was sitting. Finally retrieving it, he pressed it against his split lip, scrambling to figure out what he could say to keep his brother from disappearing out the hotel room door that Johnny kept eyeing like a caged animal.
“Sorry.” It came out slurred and indistinguishable from his brother’s name, but it was enough to make Johnny come to stand over him, glaring down, breathing heavily. Not exactly a reassuring change. At least he wasn’t facing the business end of his brother’s gun…yet.
He drew the handkerchief away from his lip, even though it still bled richly, to attempt to make his apology understandable. “Johnny, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
To Scott’s ears the words had been decipherable, but it was impossible to tell from the tight expression on Johnny’s face.
After a long moment, Johnny turned away, paced off a few steps, then came back again.
“Is that what the bastard told you happened? Not that he threw us out when he decided we weren’t good enough for a prosperous land owner?”
Scott blinked several times.
It wouldn’t help for Johnny to hear that Scott had heard the same story from multiple sources, including Maria’s own uncle, Cipriano.
“Well, he’s a damn liar. I bet he hired the Pinks to make his lies look good. Pretend to be the poor, heartbroken husband and father, paying his last dollar to try to bring his family home.”
Which was exactly what Murdoch had been. In fact, Scott had been terribly jealous when he found out at age ten that Murdoch had siphoned every available dollar into finding the stepmother and brother he hadn’t even known he had, instead of bringing him out to California to live. He’d been a teenager before he’d started to understand the role his grandfather had played in keeping him in Boston.
“Here.” Scott looked up as Johnny handed him a towel filled with ice.
“Thanks.” He gingerly pressed the offering against his oddly numb yet painful jaw. He watched Johnny drop down onto a chair, absently rubbing the knuckles of his left hand. “Looks like you could use some ice, too.”
Johnny glanced at his hand, scowled, and got up to get more ice. As he sat back down, he looked over at Scott. “Sorry. You’re not the one who deserved that punch.”
Scott nodded his acceptance of the apology and the two brothers sat in silence, nursing their wounds.
“I should go.” Johnny’s soft words broke the quiet like a sledgehammer.
Scott bolted upright. “Johnny, no. Come on, this is no big deal. I was out of line and you called me on it. Said and done.”
Johnny looked at him, away, then back again. “Were you? Out of line?” he asked uneasily.
Scott scanned the sudden vulnerability in his brother’s dark eyes. There was no Madrid mask in place now. Proceeding carefully, Scott sat upright, moving the ice pack to the carpet, wanting to be sure if he somehow found the right thing to say here, Johnny would be able to understand it.
“I didn’t mean to be,” he said quietly.
Johnny nodded slowly, not making eye contact. “You read the actual Pinks reports and they… supported his side of things?”
Scott could swear he heard Johnny’s insides ripping open with the soft question.
“Yes, Johnny, they did.”
Again, the slow nod, the distant stare, the uneasy fingers tapping a repetitive rhythm against his thigh. After a very heavy silence, Johnny murmured, “They caught up to us a few times. I never quite understood why Lancer would spend the money to send them after us all the way down at the border. One of ‘em caught me one night when I was waiting for Mama outside a cantina. I got away by stabbing him in the leg with a piece of metal. Mama and I left that town in the dead of night.”
“You were nine,” Scott continued softly. When Johnny looked up at him, he explained. “It was the first report Father allowed me to read. I found him in your room, rocking in the rocking chair, whispering over and over, ‘he was so close, so close’.”
“No.” Johnny shook his head vehemently, unwilling to believe Lancer was anything but thrilled that the Pinks had failed to find them yet again. Scott ached for the torment in his brother’s eyes.
“The entire time I lived in Boston, my grandfather lied to me.” Even years later, the memory still brought the twist of betrayal to Scott’s insides. “He told me Father didn’t care about me, and he hid all the presents and letters Father sent for my birthdays and Christmas over the years.” Scott felt Johnny’s eyes move to him, but couldn’t meet them for fear the emotion that ran so close to the surface right now would overflow. “I was devastated when I found out the truth about Grandfather when I was thirteen. Father had won my custody back in the courts three years before and brought me to California. I didn’t know our father at all, and didn’t want to come to the wild West where I was sure I’d be scalped by an Indian while being bit by a rattlesnake and trampled in a stampede.”
“All at once, huh?” Johnny asked, with a slight smile.
“That’s only the half of it. You were probably too young to remember, but Father is built like two bulls standing on top of each other, he growls like a mountain lion, and can be as prickly as a thistle patch. The first time he had me wait out in the barn for a spanking, I very nearly needed to change my pants before he even got there.”
“He beat you?” Johnny’s face transformed to a gunfighter glare in an instant, and Scott could imagine his brother mentally aiming his Colt between Murdoch’s eyes.
“No, never.” Scott countered quickly. “Father never once struck me in anger. He’d wait until he was calm, and let me tell you, sometimes it was a long, hard wait. He’d make sure I understood what I’d done wrong and how disappointed he was in my behavior. Afterwards, he always hugged me and told me he loved me.” Scott grinned. “I wasn’t always receptive to that part when my ass was on fire and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit right for three days.”
Johnny gave a tentative smile in return. Scott sensed that Johnny hadn’t had much discipline as a child, more likely beatings in the name of discipline, and he seemed uncertain that love could have any role in getting your ass whooped.
“I’d never been spanked before I moved to Lancer, a few paddlings in school, but Grandfather had a way of bringing me upright with a glare or a sharp word. And I was a bit of a handful my first few years at Lancer.”
“You, Boston?” Johnny cracked. “I can’t imagine.”
“Oh, imagine, little brother. And I think Father has debated taking me to the barn a few times recently, as well.”
Scott watched as Johnny retrieved the pile of broken cookies from where they’d landed on the carpet in the moment before fist and jaw had collided. For a second, Scott wondered if his insatiable brother would pop them into his mouth. But Johnny dropped them into the ashtray stand, and dusted off his hands.
“I guess it wouldn’t be too easy for him to know how to help after what you’ve been through.” Johnny said quietly.
Scott felt his anger spark. “What I’ve been through? What the hell do you think you know about what I’ve been through?”
Johnny glanced at him. “I don’t know anything about it. And it’s none of my business unless you choose to tell me about it.” He came back to sit down across from Scott, leaning forward, his forearms on his thighs, their eyes level. “But I do know what it’s like to have demons that haunt your dreams so bad you don’t want to go to sleep…” The deep blue eyes seemed to bore right into Scott’s. “…or to wish someone would turn out the lights permanently.”
Scott stared at his brother, dumbstruck.
How could he know? He’s just a kid. Sure, he’s killed a bunch of men and probably has some ghosts walking his grave, but he has no idea what it’s like to watch a man be blown away after he stepped into the spot you were standing in not a minute before. He doesn’t hear the screams of his men dying on the battlefield, or in a cramped, dark, dirt tunnel with nowhere to run when the guards opened fire. He thinks he knows me because he’s had to listen to me scream my guts out a few nights? Well, he’s getting paid well enough to listen to it! I don’t need his pity, or his understanding, or anything else from him. In fact…
“Fuck off, Madrid.” Scott spat, lurching to his feet. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You were right. You should leave. I’ll have your money in the morning. Enjoy your last night in the suite, it’s all yours!”
Scott grabbed his suit jacket, sending the tie flying, tossed the room key at Johnny’s face, and stormed out of the hotel room.
The heavy knocker on the hotel room door seemed to be slamming into Johnny’s aching head with every metallic clang.
“All right, all right, I’m coming!” Johnny rolled off the couch where he’d slept –if one could call the state of inebriation he’d achieved in record time ‘sleep’– and rubbed his face with both hands as he groaned his way to his feet. Previously, he’d kept his drinking to a minimum, feeling an obligation to stay sober enough to watch out for Scott, who clearly had no interest in watching out for himself. But after screwing things up so royally with Scott some number of hours earlier, Johnny felt he deserved a heavy duty drunk, along with a massive hangover.
He’d gotten both. He had to swallow several times on his way to answer the door to hold back nausea. Only after he’d opened the door to see the hotel manager barely holding up a sobbing young woman, did Johnny think to look down to make sure he was dressed. Luckily, he still wore the previous night’s clothes, although he noticed a sizable whiskey stain on the front of his shirt.
“Mr Lancer, you’re needed downstairs most emergently,” the hotel manager exclaimed, pushing his way into the room, woman in tow, without awaiting an invitation.
“Lancer is my brother and he’s not here right now…” Johnny struggled to wrap his brain around why there was a sobbing woman in his hotel room.
The hotel manager looked equally confused. “But you’re brothers, how is your name not Lancer, too?”
Johnny remembered being angry that Scott had signed the hotel register, ‘Scott and Johnny Lancer’. Scott had just smirked at him and asked sotto voice, “Do you really think signing in as Madrid is going to give us a week with no one bothering us, little brother?”
He’d reluctantly let it stand.
“Never mind. What is it you need my brother for?”
“You don’t understand. This is about your brother. There’s been a terrible accident…”
Johnny was abruptly sober. “What happened? Is Scott alright? Where is he?”
The woman’s sobs turned to wails, sending an ominous chill down Johnny’s spine.
“He fell off the balcony. I’m afraid he was… quite inebriated and trying to balance on the third floor railing. The doctor is with him now, but… well, it doesn’t look good.”
Johnny spun the rotund man around, pushing him through the door. “Take me to him, now!”
Johnny’s heart raced as it seemed to take forever for them to make it down to the lobby and through the crowd of people who had gathered to gawk. His blood ran cold as he spotted a tall man leaning over Scott’s still, twisted body. He knelt at his brother’s side, looking first for breathing, then to the doctor’s face. “Doc?”
“He’s alive, but I don’t know for how long. His right leg is broken, as is his right arm and possibly even his back. I suspect there’s internal bleeding and he’s deeply concussed. We need to get him to my office with a minimum of jostling so I can operate and do what I can to mitigate the damage. I have a stretcher in my office we can use.”
Johnny began snapping orders; for the hotel manager to clear away the crowd, especially the damn wailing woman, for several young men to get the stretcher and then ever so carefully help him lift a quickly-splinted Scott onto it. A woman offered to run ahead to the office to boil water and to set up Doc’s instruments, another grabbed towels from inside to stem the bleeding from a gash on the back of Scott’s head. It was a flurry of activity for the several minutes it took to get Scott down the street to the physician’s office. Johnny tried to insist on staying for the surgery, but the Doc was having none of it.
Suddenly he found himself completely alone, standing in the middle of the waiting room, staring at nothing, as his brother fought for his life in the next room. The last words the doctor spoke before closing the door on him were, “If he’s got other family, I suggest you get them here now.”
Besides the brother who angered Scott so badly, he took to the bottle and the balcony to see if he could fly.
Johnny collapsed onto the hard waiting room bench, burying his face into his hands. Good God, he’d known his brother less than a week, and Scott was probably going to die, his body now as broken as his mind had been since the war.
A bell chimed as the front door opened, admitting the woman Johnny remembered retrieving the towels. She looked at the closed operating room door, then over at Johnny.
“My name is Mia. My mother, Kate, is Dr. Hansen’s nurse. I understand the man who was injured is your brother.”
Johnny nodded numbly, making room as she sat beside him.
“I’m sorry this has happened. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Johnny’s eyes traveled to the closed door. “I need to send a telegram.”
“Harvey usually doesn’t open the telegraph office until 10:00, but I’ll see if he’ll make an exception.” Mia scouted around until she found a pencil and some paper. As she went to hand them to Johnny, she saw his hands were blood-covered and shaking. She sat back down beside him. “Why don’t you tell me what the telegram should say, and I’ll write it down. Where is it going?”
He followed her eyes to his hands, absently rubbing at the drying blood, noticing the knuckles of his left hand were swollen and skinned.
I hit him. Possibly the last time I’ll ever see my brother, and I practically knocked him unconscious. Over something that wasn’t even his fault. Part of me knew Mama lied about leaving Lancer. I heard her talking with Rosa at the cantina that night shortly before she died. She said Jameson had promised her a better life, one with maids, and cooks, and lavish parties, all the things she’d expected to find at the great hacienda del Lancer. But the gambler had been a worse disappointment than Lancer had turned out to be.
Oh Mama, if only you’d let those Pinks find us. We could’ve gone home and I could’ve grown up with my brother…
Mia quietly clearing her throat brought him out of his reverie.
“Oh, sorry. Um, Murdoch Lancer, Morro Coyo.” He paused, wondering what in hell to say. He decided direct was best. “Scott badly hurt, stop, come to Modesto, stop.” He looked over at her hovering pencil. “That’s it, I guess.”
“How should I sign it?”
Hell, now there’s a question.
Your pistolero son? The idiot who got Scott into this mess? The kid who’s waited most of his life to put a bullet in you?
Maybe I don’t sign it at all, and see how long it takes him to figure out who I am once he gets here.
No, that wouldn’t be right. For all else that Murdoch Lancer might be, he is Scott’s father, and is going to come screaming into town, worried as hell.
If he even makes it in time.
Johnny sighed heavily, bowing his head.
“Johnny. Sign it, Johnny.”
Was it hours or days before Dr Hansen reappeared from the back room, his eyes weary, cheeks drawn and pale? Johnny feared the worst.
“He made it through surgery, and actually, the internal injuries were far less than I expected. I casted his leg. What I initially thought was a compound fracture was instead a large gash several inches above the break. His arm was also a simple fracture, so I’ve casted it as well. We’ll have to wait until he awakens to be certain about his back.” Hansen paused. “If he awakens. I’m afraid his head injury is severe. His pupils are uneven and slow to react to light. That could be an indication of bleeding in his brain.”
Johnny drew his breath in sharply. Hansen continued on.
“I don’t believe his other injuries are life-threatening, as long as a delayed hemorrhage or infection doesn’t develop. But the head injury…”
“When will we know, Doc?” Johnny’s voice sounded like it had been dragged across the desert.
“Impossible to say. Thank you, child.” Hansen accepted a cup of coffee from Mia, who then moved over to heat up Johnny’s which rested, largely untouched, on the side table under the window. “He wouldn’t wake up for hours even without the head injury because of the anesthesia. I’ll keep him heavily medicated for pain at least for a day or two to make sure the casts are fully dried before any possible movement. Then I can try lightening the sedation enough to at least see if he’s having seizures, which would tell us more about the severity of his brain injury. Until then, all we can do is hold vigil and pray.”
Ain’t no one good listening to my prayers. Johnny thought glumly.
Johnny noticed smudges of blood on the doctor’s rolled up shirtsleeves and flecks of plaster that had evaded the wash rag on his forearms and the creases around his thumbnail where he held the coffee cup. Mia had brought Johnny a wash rag, but he, too, had remnants of his brother’s accident under and around his fingernails. “Can I see him?”
“Of course.” Hansen took a step to the side, freeing up the passageway into Scott’s room. Johnny idly wondered why the doctor hadn’t sat down yet. He had to be exhausted after hours… days? of operating.
Johnny moved into the room hesitantly. Immediately, the mingled smells of blood, ether, plaster, and some kind of strong tincture assailed his nostrils. He concentrated on breathing through his mouth, and kept his eyes on the still, pale form on the narrow operating table.
“In a few hours, I’ll get some of the men to help us move him to a bed in the other room,” Hansen’s voice came over Johnny’s shoulder. “The casts should be mostly set by then. I usually wait until my patient is in bed to apply casts, but your brother’s leg was badly out of alignment, so I didn’t dare delay. As I mentioned, the arm is just a simple break, but as long as I had the plaster out, I casted it at the same time.”
Johnny’s eyes traced the contours of the cast that ran from just above Scott’s toes up to his knee. Where the plaster ended, thick rolls of blood-spotted gauze were wrapped around his thigh all the way up to where a thin sheet covered his groin and opposite leg. The cast was elevated on two pillows, one of which had a small hole in the ticking visible through the opening of the pillowcase. Two small white feathers peeked out. Johnny had the strongest urge to poke them back in again.
The sheet covered Scott’s abdomen and up over his chest, leaving both shoulders and arms uncovered. The cast on Scott’s arm seemed shrunken compared to the massive one on his leg. It, too, was elevated, but on a folded towel. Johnny noted that Scott’s fingernails were also rimmed in dried blood.
His eyes moved to Scott’s face. It looked so peaceful; no torment lurking behind his steely blue eyes, no lines of tension drawing furrows across his now-bandaged forehead. It was a hateful peace, one that threatened to take his brother away from him before they even had a chance to be brothers.
“You can touch him, talk to him.” Hansen said as he lightly pressed in on the leg cast in several spots, testing for firmness. “There have been reports of people remembering things said to them even when they appeared to be deeply unconscious. Sometimes a friendly voice can be very reassuring to the injured.”
Johnny stepped forward. “Is that right, Boston? Do you think of my voice as friendly?” His fingers trailed toward Scott’s bruised jaw and split lip, but stopped short of touching either.
I’m guessing not.
“His name is Boston?” Hansen’s surprised voice came.
“Oh, no. Scott. His name is Scott. Boston’s just a nickname.”
“Better than the nickname of Jackbutt that I called my brother.” Hansen chuckled. “I thought it was a very clever way of avoiding getting my mouth washed out with soap for cussing. His for me was Dunghead. We still call each other that when we go hunting together. What does Scott call you?”
Johnny swallowed heavily, only wishing they’d had a childhood of raunchy nicknames together. In the back of his mind, there was one thing he could hear Scott’s amused voice calling him…
“Little brother,” Johnny whispered.
“Oh, that must tick you off now that you’re a grown man, what are you, twenty-one, twenty-two?”
No, it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’d give anything to hear him say it again with that damn smug smile.
“Wow, you look older. Well, unless you want me and Kate to start calling you ‘little brother’, you might want to tell me your name.”
It took a moment for the comment to get through.
“No, not Lancer. He’s Lancer, I’m… not.”
Hansen looked perplexed, reminding Johnny of that terrible confused moment in the hotel room with the hotel manager when he’d heard Scott had been hurt. But the doctor said nothing, and the subject dropped.
“I’ll leave you be then. Kate or I will be no further than a holler away if you need us.” He paused in the doorway. “Were you able to get word off to your family all right?”
It took a moment for Johnny to sort through the conflicting emotions that came with the simple question. “Yes, but only just. Mia told me the telegraph lines were down most of the day.”
“Will it take long for them to get here?”
“At least tomorrow, if not the next day, depending on how soon he can leave.”
Johnny saw in the doctor’s eyes that he hoped it would be soon enough.
“I tell ya, Boston, those ladies at the Belmont are missing your elegant company. That redhead keeps strolling back and forth with her blond friend, pretending they’re going to the dress-shop or millinery, but they keep looking over here… And the twins, now were they actual twins or just real close in age? Anyway, them I see leaning out their hotel window pining away for your skinny ass. You’d better not keep them waiting too long now. It ain’t the gentlemanly thing to do…”
Johnny turned away from the sunny window which looked out onto the main boardwalk to glance over at Scott. The ashen body hadn’t moved even a twitch in the last two days, even during the times Hansen had lightened the sedation to check for seizures. It was a blessing and minuscule bright spot that there had been no sign of seizures. But every hour that passed without any other type of response boded poorly for Scott ever waking up.
They’d moved Scott to this bright, airy, front room the night of the accident and Johnny had not left his side since. A narrow cot was set up on the opposite side of the room, but the tightly tucked linens gave evidence that it had gone unused. Twice, under pressure from Kate and the Doc, Johnny had lain atop the blankets for a few minutes, hoping exhaustion would translate to sleep, but each time he’d started to drift off he would hear that still unidentified woman’s high-pitched wailing, or would see his brother’s crumpled body lying in the dirt.
From the window, he could see the exact spot where Scott had fallen, and the balcony overhead with its broken railing. Part of him wondered if a faulty railing had led to Scott’s fall in the innocent act of leaning over to watch a glorious sunrise. That’s what Scott’s ‘company’ for the night, Ellen –surprisingly, not the sobbing woman– said he was doing before the fall, exclaiming over the beauty of the sunrise.Of course, from her account, he was standing on the railing with his arms outstretched at the time.
The sheriff, Abe Winters, had explained all this to Johnny, after taking Johnny’s statement, which wasn’t much because he hadn’t been there, along with those of dozens of witnesses, gossips, and gore-mongers who had lined up to tell their unique versions of the story. Greenspan, the hotel manager, had emphasized how drunk Scott was at the time, although his information was only second-hand, having not personally been present. Ellen, a reluctant witness for reasons of her reputation, but the only person who had actually seen Scott fall, concurred with witnesses who had interacted with him in the gaming room beforehand that he’d had quite a lot to drink.
“And he’d apparently been in some type of altercation earlier in the evening,” Winters said leadingly, “It was noted that he had a bruised jaw and split lip before the accident.”
“A misunderstanding. Over as quickly as it started.” Johnny murmured. He swore Winters was staring at his bruised knuckles, but made no move to hide his hand or divert his eyes from the sheriff’s.
Winters held his gaze for a long beat before saying, “So this appears to have been an unfortunate accident. If your brother should wake up…” At the harsh glare from Johnny, Winters cleared his throat and amended, “When your brother wakes up, I’ll need to speak with him before closing out the matter.”
Johnny adjusted the blankets over Scott’s shoulders, as he had a dozen times in the last few hours. The bruise on Scott’s jaw and the cracked lip were virtually indistinguishable from other scrapes and bruises acquired in the fall. Johnny’s knuckles no longer showed evidence of the punch. But it was deeply imprinted in his memory.
“You know, Scott, I have to tell you, I’m more than a bit nervous about meeting the old man when he comes. I wouldn’t tell anybody else that. Johnny Madrid ain’t supposed to be scared of anyone or anything. And for most things, I ain’t. Give me a gunfight, a few guys in an alley, a rattler, any day over this family shit. You were hard enough to deal with.” Johnny rested his hand over the fingers of Scott’s casted hand. He’d seen Kate and Doc do it, testing to be sure the arm wasn’t swelling too much beneath the cast and cutting off circulation to Scott’s hand. The fingers were warm. Still, Johnny let his hand linger.
“I was expecting this Scott Lancer fella to be a seventy year old grandpappy or uncle. Maybe one who no longer had his wits about him, cuz it was pretty crazy for someone to make up that kind of wanted poster, doncha think? Anyway, I never even thought it could be a brother.” Johnny chuckled, brushing a strand of hair off Scott’s bandaged forehead. “Never mind a blond as the sun brother. I mean, what are the chances? At first I thought you had to be younger, cuz Mama never said anything about me having a brother.” A pause as he studied the tranquil face, willing the features to come back to life. “I guess that was just one more of her lies, huh, brother? Lies. But you know all about that, with your grandpappy and all…”
Johnny noticed that even two days of Kate’s baths had not gotten all the blood from around Scott’s fingernails. He dug into his pants pocket for his jackknife and flipped it open. Carefully, he ran the edge of the blade around and under each of Scott’s nails.
“You weren’t so bad as I expected. If only you coulda seen yourself that first morning, though, flailing around looking for your gun, your lily white ass out there for all to see. I tell ya, it was good I didn’t have to hold a gun on you, cuz I was laughing so hard, it mighta gone off by accident.” Johnny inspected his work, wiped the knife off on his pant leg, then used a washcloth to wipe away any final traces, staying clear of the plaster cast.
He crossed to the other side of the bed to do the other hand. “But thinking about the old man… jeez, that’s a whole other thing. Been dreaming of putting a bullet in him most of my life. Even after I figured Mama hadn’t told the whole truth about why we left. Every time one of her men would beat the tar outta me, I hated the old man more for not being there.” Johnny sighed, clicking his teeth in thought. “And I gotta figure, with it just being your name on that wanted poster, once he knew about Madrid he tossed out any thought he mighta had of bringing me home. Not that I could blame him too much for that, I guess. Ain’t many men who want a gunhawk for a kid…”
As Johnny scratched off a speck of blood on the second to last nail, Scott flinched. “Oh sorry, did I…” Suddenly, the significance of the tiny movement registered. Johnny glanced up at Scott’s face. At first there was nothing, and Johnny almost convinced himself he’d imagined it. But then, there was the slightest tightening of Scott’s facial features, a caught breath, and another fractional finger movement.
Before Johnny could call out for Hansen, he heard the door behind him open. Johnny started to lean over Scott, to call his name, and to be in his line of sight should he open his eyes.
“What the hell are you doing?!” came the roar of a grizzly, and before he could react, Johnny felt himself being propelled across the room into a breath-stealing collision with the wall. “I’ll kill you, you goddamned lowlife!” Pain exploded rapid-fire in his head and then his stomach, and Johnny Madrid fell into blackness, wondering when the hell grizzlies had learned to talk.
Awareness returned degree by painful degree. First, a loud ringing in his ears that sent razor blades of pain across his cheekbone. Then, the jabbing of knives in his side, feeling as if several ribs had poked through the skin and were sawing wider gashes with each breath. He searched his memory for where he was and what had happened.
“Scott!” he shouted, trying to sit up before he even opened his eyes. Firm hands caught his shoulders, as the name was swallowed up in a groan, and pushed him back down.
“Scott is holding his own,” Johnny recognized Hansen’s voice, “He’s not awake yet, but reacting a bit to his surroundings, which is promising.”
Johnny forced his eyes open and waited for the room to stop spinning. Hansen handed him a wet cloth.
“It would have been nice if you’d given me a heads up that there’s some, uh, tension between you and your father.” The doctor said, wryly.
“Ain’t nothing between us.” Johnny grunted, running the cloth over his face before pushing himself up to sit on the edge of the exam table. He was in the room where Hansen had operated on Scott. He wondered how he got there. “I haven’t even seen him since I was two.” He looked down at the bandages wrapped awkwardly around his chest, glad to see no bones were sticking out.
“I’ll probably have to rewrap those ribs. It was a little hard to get the binding tight enough without any help while you were lying down. Kate stayed with Scott. Abe is busy holding your father at bay. He’s waiting to see if you want to press charges.”
Johnny held himself upright with a firm grip on the side of the exam table, afraid if he let go, he’d end up on his face. “How long was I out?”
“Less than a minute in the other room. A little punch-drunk getting you in here but we were doing okay until you decided you wanted to lie down as I was fixing you up.”
“Sorry. Don’t remember anything after the growl.” Johnny gingerly felt along his cheekbone, grimacing as he touched the bony prominence under his left eye.
“I don’t think it’s broken, but you definitely have a cracked rib or two. Your father is a big man and throws a hell of a punch. How’s your head feeling?” Hansen felt around the back of Johnny’s head. “I couldn’t see if you hit it when you went down.”
Nothing made Johnny wince. “It’s okay.”
Hansen nodded, watched as Johnny held the wet cloth against his cheek, then held his hand out for it. “I’ll get it cool again.” He disappeared into a back room and Johnny heard the sound of a water pump. When he returned, Hansen had a glass of water along with the cloth.
“Thanks.” The water felt cold and refreshing going down, and the cloth eased the rhythmic pounding across his cheekbone and into his ear. “ Is… he still in with Scott?”
“Your father? Yes. Short of calling in his deputy and Smithy, Abe knew nothing was going to get your father out of that room.” Hansen cleared his throat. “Apparently, all your father saw was someone leaning over Scott with a knife in his hand. If he hasn’t seen you since you were a baby, he probably had no idea it was you.”
“Oh, he knew exactly who it was.” Johnny murmured, remembering how he’d signed the telegram.
He probably built up a head of steam on the long ride here. Bet he figured I got Scott shot, or maybe even did it myself.
“Are you going to press charges?”
“Can he keep me from sitting with Scott?”
Hansen raised his eyebrows, clearly curious about the background story, but too professional to ask. “As his brother, you have as much of a right to be there as your father does. But I won’t tolerate any arguing or one-up-manship. Scott doesn’t need that kind of stress.”
“I’ll be good, Doc. If the old man agrees, too, I won’t press charges. I’ve only known Scott for a few days, but I can tell he and his father are close. He’ll need him there.”
Only known him a few days? That tidbit overwhelmed Hansen’s curiosity. “His father? Not your father? Does that mean you’re only half-brothers who didn’t grow up together?”
Johnny laughed inwardly at the truth of Hansen’s statement, even though the doctor was way off in his understanding. “Something like that, Doc.”
After confirming to Abe Winters that he wouldn’t be pressing charges against Murdoch, provided there were no issues with him being with Scott, and once he was sure he could stay on his feet without the world tilting him off, Johnny Madrid entered his brother’s room. Winters was close on his heels, ready to intervene as needed.
Murdoch’s glare carried a physical weight as he rose out of his chair. Although Johnny seemed to only give him a cursory glance, the impression of the man’s considerable mass expanding to consume all available space, like smoke billowing out from a mine-shaft explosion, registered deeply in his mind. He crossed to the opposite side of Scott’s bed, his confident demeanor giving no clue as to his reaction to seeing, for the first time in 17 years, the man who sired him.
“He has no right to be in here!” The block of solid granite bellowed. “I don’t want that gunfighter anywhere near my son! Sheriff, you have an obligation to protect Scott from this murderer.”
“Now, we’ve been through this, Mr Lancer, as Scott’s brother, Madrid has every right to be here. There are no warrants for Madrid, and no evidence he poses any risk to your son. They’ve been seen together in companionable company by many witnesses for several days.”
Of course Lancer had taken no time in informing Winters that Johnny was Johnny Madrid, notorious gunfighter, killer of men, demon from hell, and whatever other despicable descriptions had come to mind. Winters had not been happy that Johnny hadn’t disclosed that during his statement. Johnny hadn’t been trying to hide it; it simply had not seemed relevant.
“No risk! For God’s sake, my son is in a coma thanks to him.”
“Madrid wasn’t anywhere near Scott when the accident happened. That was confirmed by the eyewitness. Now, Doc Hansen made it clear there was to be no fighting or tension around Scott. If we need to, we can set up an alternating visitation schedule so you won’t be in the room at the same time.”
Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not leaving my son.”
Winters looked over at Johnny who just gave him a lopsided grin.
“Very well, but at the first whisper of trouble, you’ll not only be taking turns in here, but in my jail, too. I suggest you take this time to mend whatever rift has grown between you. This is going to be a long journey for Scott, and he’s going to need both of you to support him…without killing each other.”
With a meaningful look at each man in turn, Winters left.
Johnny turned his attention to Scott, ignoring the fact that Murdoch remained standing, hovering ominously over the head of the bed like a vulture awaiting its dinner’s last breath. Scott’s appearance hadn’t changed in the last couple of hours, yet Johnny had the sense he was doing better. Perhaps just wishful thinking after having seen the slight movements earlier.
As had become his habit, he rested his hand over Scott’s, even though there was no cast to check the tightness of on this side. He heard Murdoch’s sharp intake of air, but chose to ignore it.
“So, Boston, ya gotta do better than that one little twitch earlier. It’s time you start waking up. I bet you’re dying to get that tube out that Doc stuck down your nose to give you water and stuff. I’ve got a nice cool drink of water waiting for you once you open your eyes.”
There was no response.
Throughout the day, Johnny kept up a one-sided conversation with his brother, which was difficult for him as he wasn’t much of a talker, and wasn’t about to reveal anything too personal about himself or his experiences in front of Murdoch. After Hansen had confirmed to Murdoch that talking to Scott could help his recovery, the elder man took his turn, talking about the ranch and the people back home who were anxious for Scott’s recovery.
Johnny found himself mesmerized by the elder man’s descriptions of Lancer; verdant rolling hills bordered by the mountains still capped with snow, rivers and creeks running deep and clear, bands of wild horses on a place called Black Mesa. Their horse-breaker, Todd, had also broken his leg. Murdoch suggested the two “boys” could recuperate together, although Lancer’s contract with the army for officers’ mounts might be in jeopardy if they didn’t find a replacement for Todd soon.
Kate arrived in the late afternoon with preparations for Scott’s bath. Hansen came in with her, and as she spoke, Johnny realized he was for back-up.
“Gentlemen, Mr Porter at the bank would like to speak with both of you regarding a financial matter. As I was prepared to ask you both to leave during Scott’s bath, now would be an excellent time for you to take care of that. Then Mr Greenspan at the hotel would like to speak with you, Mr Lancer, about whether you wish to continue to rent the suite at the Belmont, and another matter he didn’t see fit to explain to me. You both need a break, so neither will return until 8:00 pm, and only then if you have eaten and taken at least an hour’s nap. This matter is not up for negotiation. Uht…” she raised a finger as both men started to speak. “Again, not up for negotiation. Those two men have been harrying us all day wanting to speak with you. Now go on with you both.”
Properly chastised and dismissed, the two men silently left the doctor’s office.
“I don’t see what financial matter could possibly involve you.” Murdoch sniped, as they stepped out into the still-warm but rapidly sinking sun. Johnny just shrugged, not feeling the comment deserved an answer. Porter intercepted them before they’d even crossed the road, apparently afraid they might choose to deal with Mr Greenspan, the annoying hotel manager who was waving them over, first. It was ten til four, and the bank always closed exactly at 4:00 pm.
Porter ushered them into the bank, and locked the door behind them, almost in the face of Mr. Greenspan. Anyone hoping to duck into the bank in its last ten minutes today would be out of luck.
“Thank you, gentlemen, for coming.” He showed them into an office, closing the door, but not locking it, then offering them each a chair in front of a large desk, which he settled behind. “How is young Mr. Lancer doing?”
“No change,” Murdoch said gruffly, remaining standing, as did Johnny. “I don’t like being away from my son and can’t possibly imagine what could be so important for you to call me away, never mind, why you would think it appropriate to include Madrid here in any financial discussion related to me or my son.”
Porter cleared his throat uneasily. “I received your telegram, Mr Lancer…”
“Again,” Murdoch interrupted, his voice rising sharply, “my family business is of no concern of Madrid’s!”
Johnny was enjoying Murdoch’s discomfort. He leaned against the heavy oak table that lined the back wall, his arms crossed, a slight smile on his face.
“If you’ll allow me to explain, Mr Lancer,” Porter pulled at his necktie anxiously. “When I received your telegram instructing me to freeze young Mr Lancer’s account, I was able to do so, with one exception.” The nervous man’s eyes darted back and forth between the two men. “When he signed for the transfer of funds from Green River Savings upon his arrival, he specifically stated that $2,000 was for Mr. Madrid here. Because Mr Madrid does not have an account with any of the regional banks, it was agreed that, for a nominal fee, we would hold the money in Mr Lancer’s account, but ear-marked for Mr Madrid. When my assistant manager, Mr Jeffries, gave you the balance for the account, he inadvertently included the money that is actually Mr Madrid’s.”
Johnny could see the river of red fury that flowed from Murdoch’s neck right up his face.
“What on God’s green earth did you do to my son to force him to give you $2,000?”
Johnny took his time in answering, knowing it was adding to Murdoch’s ire. “Well now, that was a private business deal between me and your son.” He emphasized the last two words to show Murdoch’s particular word choice had not gone unnoticed.
“I’ll have you up on extortion charges, or kidnapping…”
Johnny turned to the bank manager, his smile still solidly in place. “Mr Porter, you were here when Scott signed for the transfer. Did you sense any hesitance or pressure on his part regarding the $2,000?”
“Not at all. In fact, I would have to say he seemed extraordinarily cheerful.”
“Scott, cheerful?” Murdoch parroted, then gritted his teeth at having let his surprise show.
“Yes. He said he was here on vacation with his little brother, and they were going to have a grand time. Oh my, is the little tyke okay? He wasn’t there when his brother fell was he?”
Murdoch’s expression became murderous. Johnny’s reaction was bittersweet. The bank manager’s misunderstanding was funny, but an ache settled in the pit of Johnny’s stomach when he heard the “little brother” appellation and was reminded of Scott’s excitement just a few short days ago.
“The brother is fine, worried about Scott is all.” Johnny replied quietly.
“I’m glad to hear it. You will still leave your money with us, won’t you, Mr Madrid?” Porter queried, fearing the loss of the “nominal” daily fee of three dollars, highway robbery to Johnny’s mind, but at this point worth the convenience.
“As long as our arrangement can continue without…interference. If that will be a problem, I can remove everything and simply transfer it to the hotel safe.”
“I can assure you that won’t be necessary,” Porter looked at his watch, making it clear time was tight. “And Mr Lancer, would you like me to remove the freeze on your son’s account? I, er, understand there may be an outstanding tab at the Belmont for gaming chits, a bar tab, and perhaps damages to the balcony… ”
Johnny could swear he saw steam coming out of Murdoch’s ears at Porter’s lack of discretion.
“We’ll discuss that tomorrow in private! Good day, Mr. Porter.”
Murdoch stormed out of the room, but then had to wait for Porter to unlock the door to let them out. Johnny stayed back several paces as they left, ostensibly to thank Porter, but more to stay out of the way of Greenspan who pounced on Murdoch in the middle of the road. Johnny slipped by, made his way up to the suite, and let himself in using the key he still had in his pants pocket.
The room had been cleaned and his one change of clothes laundered and neatly folded on the bottom of the bed. His intent was just to pack his few things and leave. He didn’t plan to need a hotel room at all, never mind one costing ten dollars a night. But, the room had a beautiful porcelain tub, and he needed a bath and a shave, so he availed himself of the amenities.
He was just coming out of the water closet, freshly dressed, when Greenspan let Murdoch into the suite.
“You! Get out of our suite, you are not welcome here!” Murdoch spouted.
Johnny was briefly tempted to give the old man a hard time, but was too exhausted and drained to have the heart for it. He picked up his saddlebags. “I was on my way out.”
He went over to the livery and took both Diablo and Remmie, Scott’s horse, for long rides to exercise them and to clear his head. He knew he and Murdoch couldn’t keep on like this, the stress would overflow at some point, and it would only hurt Scott in the long run. Johnny wondered if he should just leave. It’s what Scott had shouted at him to do before storming out. Quite likely the first words out of Scott’s mouth when he woke up would be, “Why the hell aren’t you gone?”
Yet, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Scott without knowing if he was going to be okay.
Then there was the issue of getting the money to the bank in Cross Creek for the Houston’s farm deed. He could have the bank in Modesto wire it there, which would save time and the risk that he might get held up by one of Booth’s goons –which actually would be far worse for the would-be robbers than for him. It would also provide a paper trail for proof of payment that Booth wouldn’t be able to deny.
Johnny didn’t trust Booth not to try something else, or simply move on to another vulnerable family. Not to mention, Johnny owed it to the Houston family to bring to justice whomever was responsible for the murder of their husband and father. So perhaps he should go there personally for a few days, reinforce the fear of death he’d put into Booth…
No. Something told him he needed to be near Scott in these next critical days. Despite Scott’s angry dismissal when Johnny had pushed too hard around the nightmares, and his sense that Scott’s recklessness was his effort to do anything –even something lethal– to get them to stop, Johnny knew Scott would be upset to find him gone.
He’d wire the money to Cross Creek in the morning, and hold off on the rest until Scott was stable. That decision put him back to figuring out how to be in the same room with Murdoch without violence erupting.
The rides had done wonders for his mind, but his ribs were throbbing. He allowed the livery owner to care for Remmie, finding he’d done a wonderful job on Diablo while Johnny had taken Remmie out. He got himself a quick bite in the cantina, figuring it would be the last place Murdoch would choose for food, then caught a little sleep in Diablo’s stall while waiting for the magic hour of eight pm.
Murdoch was already seated in the waiting room when Johnny arrived back at the doctor’s office, and by the look on his face and tension in his massive frame, he’d been left cooling his heels for a while. Johnny leaned against the opposite wall, his arms casually folded, his gaze on the floor. Still, he picked up each movement as Murdoch checked his watch four times in the ensuing minutes.
Johnny wondered how in sync Murdoch’s watch was with the church bell that chimed the hour from dawn until dusk. If there was a discrepancy between the two, Johnny was interested to see if a battle would develop between Kate and Murdoch over the time. He had the feeling Murdoch viewed the accuracy of his timepiece as having personally been granted from the heavens. Johnny suspected Kate had as firm a belief about the church bell.
He was almost disappointed when just as Murdoch snapped the cover to his watch closed and stood up, the church bell began the first of eight chimes, its final for the day. Kate rose as they entered, and placed her hands on her hips.
“Well, gentlemen, did you have your food and naps?”
Murdoch ignored her, moving to the bedside, touching Scott’s hand. “Scott, I’m back, son.” The angst in Murdoch’s words made Johnny’s insides twist uncomfortably. He looked away, somehow feeling he shouldn’t be observing such a tender moment from the older man.
Kate was still looking at Johnny expectantly. He smiled. “Well, ma’am, Senora Ruiz can attest that I ate three of her marvelous tamales and two churros. As far as the napping part, Diablo was my only witness, but if you give him a carrot, he’ll nod his head for you.”
Kate laughed. “Would he nod his head even if I asked him if Modesto is the capital of California?”
“Why, yes ma’am, Diablo will do most anything for a carrot.” Johnny’s brief smile showed bright white teeth. His gaze drifted back to his brother. “Any change at all?”
She followed his eyes and spoke loudly enough for Murdoch to hear. “He’s just coming off a big dose of morphine now. Dr Hansen wanted him to get rest while the two of you did.” Her inflection said she knew their ‘rest’ had been minimal at best, but also that they would have been upset if Scott had awakened during their forced absence. “But his pupils are almost even now, and much more reactive to light. That’s very encouraging.”
Johnny moved up to Scott’s right side, as Murdoch was uncharacteristically on his left now. He remained quiet as Murdoch tried to lure Scott from the depths of unconsciousness. The only reaction was a brief twitch of his left eye, which may or may not have been voluntary.
Dr Hansen joined them briefly, then he and Kate retired for the evening, Hansen “available if anything changes” in his attached residence, and Kate escorted home by her son,Tom, and Mia.
Murdoch had been shown how to alternately put water or a honey tea mixture down the nasal tube every hour. His watch made frequent trips in and out of his pocket as he timed the administrations down to the precise minute. Most went flawlessly. But at 2:00 am, the tube abruptly backed up, spilling honey tea all over the bed linens.
“Leave it!” Murdoch ordered as Johnny grabbed towels to help clean up. “I’ll take care of it!”
Johnny took a step back, raising his hands. After watching for a few moments, he went to the armoire and pulled out a new set of linens. “The bottom sheet is wet, it’s a two-person job to change it. I’ve helped Kate a few times.”
“I don’t need your help.” Murdoch growled.
“Maybe not, but your son does.” Johnny untucked the sheet on his side, rolled it next to Scott’s body. “Here, grab this at his shoulder and his hip and hold it taut, but don’t pull until I get the new one situated under him.” He didn’t give Murdoch the chance to argue. After he’d placed the new sheet on the uncovered side and rolled it tightly beneath Scott, he helped Murdoch lift Scott using the old sheet, and slid the new sheet beneath. They reversed the order to pull the damp sheet out and get the new one situated. Scott’s leg was carefully resettled onto the pillows, his arm onto the folded towel. “There ya go, Boston. My corners may not be nice and neat like Kate’s, but it’ll have to do.”
When he came back to the bedside after putting the wet sheets into the basket in the back room, he found Murdoch redoing the corners of the bedding on his side. He held back, expecting a gruff admonishment. Instead, Murdoch muttered, “If you pull it tight here like this, and smooth the angle, it holds better.”
Johnny had to suppress a smile at the absurdity of this massive man giving sheet-tucking lessons. Murdoch’s discomfort was obvious. Johnny simply nodded an acknowledgement. “Do you think enough tea got in?”
“Probably not. If you would hand me two of those towels, I’ll try to flush the tube with some warm water. I think the honey might have settled and thickened as the tea cooled and perhaps it blocked the tube.”
Johnny nodded and held the towels in place as Murdoch slowly and meticulously flushed the tube. It seemed to work and soon the two men were back to their silent vigil.
The night wore on interminably.
Johnny watched emotions run rapidly across Murdoch’s features: worry, love, frustration, anger, confusion. It wasn’t hard to decipher which ones were aimed at Scott, and which ones at him. He struggled to find a way to break some of the tension between them. If Scott was to awaken, it couldn’t be to them tearing at each other’s throats. But he had his own well of anger that was at least as deep as Murdoch’s. As much as he wanted to let it go for Scott’s sake, he just couldn’t quite get past it.
He’d been staring intently at Scott’s slack features, silently willing his brother’s eyes to open, when Murdoch suddenly broke the silence.
“What was the $2,000 for?”
Johnny didn’t move, didn’t blink, running several possible answers through his mind. The question wasn’t asked belligerently. Perhaps it would have been easier to respond to if it had been. As he heard Murdoch inhale to repeat the question, Johnny stood and crossed over to where his saddlebags sat on a small table in the far corner. Wordlessly, he pulled out the wanted poster, unfolding it as he moved back to lay it atop the sheet where Murdoch’s hand held Scott’s.
He heard Murdoch’s sharp intake of air, but kept his eyes on Scott’s face.
“I’d forgotten all about this…” Johnny caught the movement as Murdoch wiped a hand across his face. “God, it’s been years.”
There didn’t seem to be a need to respond, so Johnny didn’t.
A heavy sigh preceded a head shake. “I was so angry with him when I found out he’d had these made. One made it to a friend of mine all the way over in Texas. When he wrote to me…” A storm of fury transformed Murdoch’s features. Johnny could almost see the argument that had ensued between father and son. He remembered what Scott had said about Murdoch taking out his disappointment over Scott’s bad choices in the barn. His stomach twisted to think Scott might have been hurt because of him.
“Did you beat him for doing it?” he accused with fire in his eyes.
“What? Beat him? Of course not, what kind of man do you think I am?” Murdoch was outraged.
“The kind who didn’t want either of his kids.” Johnny shot back.
“That’s not true! I always wanted both of you.”
“Really,” Johnny snarled. “Hard to tell.”
“You have no right to judge me. You don’t know anything about the circumstances.”
“Maybe not, but I’m real clear on the outcome. Scott lived with his Grandpappy for ten years, and it’s been just about seventeen since you tossed me and Mama out.”
“I didn’t… is that what your mother told you, that I threw you out?”
Johnny wasn’t quite sure what emotion he was reading on Murdoch’s face. Definitely anger, but something else, too. Despair?
Murdoch shook his head sharply and began to pace in the small space on his side of the bed, which only allowed two and a half steps in each direction.
“I didn’t throw you out. I loved you… both.” Murdoch seemed to be talking to himself more than to him. Johnny kept his distance, watching with a combination of wariness and curiosity. “That’s why you didn’t come home after she died. I always hoped you would. I didn’t know if you knew who I was, but I never thought she would have told you I didn’t want you.” Abruptly, the steely blue-gray eyes fixed on Johnny. “You were my life, my heart, Johnny. You gave me the strength to believe I could fight for Scott against Garrett and bring him home so we could be a family. I never would have sent you away! I wanted you. Good Lord, I wanted you!”
Johnny couldn’t breathe. The emotion in Murdoch’s eyes was so raw and intense, it impacted him more profoundly than either of the earlier physical blows. His chest constricted, and, for a moment, blackness crowded his vision, the floor once again beckoning. He may have staggered a step, ensnared in Murdoch’s wild-eyed, hungry gaze.
I wanted you.
Three simple words. Yet ones that terrified and confounded Johnny more than any of the men or weapons he’d ever faced.
I wanted you.
Stripped of every defense, Johnny bowed his head. As with any other time he’d been vulnerable since his mother died, he drew on Madrid for calm and strength.
Past tense. He ‘wanted’ a two year old baby. Not a gunfighter. He fought with Scott over the poster because he knew what I was by then. His innocent little boy was gone, and in his place was a killer.
Slowly, the feeling came back to his fingertips and the strength back to his knees. Air moved more easily in and out of his lungs. He raised his head, meeting Murdoch’s eyes steadily.
“Until you didn’t. Tell me, old man, when did that ‘want’ go away? When you didn’t get the son you really wanted back from Boston? Or when I wasn’t strong enough to protect Mama from getting murdered by one of the many men she slept with to buy me food? Maybe it was when I was twelve and killed the bastard, basically in cold blood? Or did it take Madrid’s reputation to blow that ‘want’ right out of your mind, and me right out of your heart?”
The words slid out easily, ice on ice. Cold and hard, no emotion, not even anger. Simple, brutal words, shards intended to cut deep.
Murdoch stared back at him, mouth slightly open, as if he was about to disagree, but then couldn’t. Truth slammed the door on argument.
Johnny was mildly curious as to which one had done it. But before he could prompt an answer, Scott abruptly moaned.
Both men immediately turned their attention on him. Murdoch laid a hand on Scott’s forehead, and gripped his hand with the other.
“Scott, son, I’m here. Open your eyes.”
Johnny allowed Murdoch to guide Scott awake, not for Murdoch’s sake, but for Scott’s. He needed to see a familiar, comforting face.
After several attempts, and moans as he tried to shift position, Scott finally opened his eyes. “Wha… where?”
“We’re in Modesto. You’ve had a fall, broke your leg and arm, and got a good bonk on your head. But you’re going to be alright.” Murdoch sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as Scott. Johnny was stunned at how relief and warmth had transformed the man’s stonelike visage.
“I’ll go get the Doc.” Johnny said quietly, turning for the door.
Scott immediately rolled his head toward him. “Johnny…” He tried to lift his broken arm to beckon Johnny back to the bed.
“Yeah, it’s me.” Johnny quickly rested his hand on the cast to immobilize Scott’s arm. “Still here, although I must say the entertainment these last few days has been sorely lacking…”
“Days?” Scott again tried to lift his arm, wincing from pain.
“Three and a half now. It’s about time you stopped lazing around. You do, however, need to keep this arm and leg still. They’re both busted and in casts. Doc will have our heads if you crack them. And I don’t even want to think about what Kate would do.”
Scott lifted his head off the pillow, trying to see, then groaned and fell back, pulling his hand from Murdoch’s to rub his forehead.
“Kate is Dr Hansen’s nurse,” Murdoch explained, “and is indeed a strict lady. Uht, don’t touch that tube. It’s what has been needed to get fluids into you while you’ve been unconscious.
Scott groaned again, although it was unclear if it was from pain or the idea of the tube that ran up his nose.
“I’ll go get Doc. He’ll give you something for the pain.”
“No, don’t leave!” Scott again tried to reach out, but Johnny quickly settled him back.
“No fussin’, now, Boston, I’ll be right back. You can’t get rid of me so easily.” He gave his brother a reassuring smile and wink. “You’re paid up through the end of the week.”
Dr Jansen was immensely pleased with his assessment. Scott didn’t stay awake long, and couldn’t remember anything more recent than two days before the accident, but he answered questions accurately, didn’t have any vision problems, and could wiggle the toes on both feet. The dual worries of a broken back or bleeding brain injury were eliminated. Scott was able to sip laudanum-laced water, and pleaded for the tube to be removed. Hansen said he’d consider it in the morning, if Scott was able to tolerate broth. It was reassuring to all of them to hear Scott grumble about it for exactly ten seconds before he fell off to sleep.
The next two days passed quickly, if awkwardly. Johnny and Murdoch were tight-lipped but cordial with each other, mindful of Scott’s desire to have them both close, and of Doc and Kate’s warnings about Scott being unable to tolerate stress. He was only able to stay awake for a few minutes at a time, as Hansen was still dosing him heavily for pain, and the first two minutes were frequently spent reminding him of how he was injured –minus the information on where he was standing when he fell– and what body parts not to move.
There was an awkward moment when Scott asked Johnny about the black eye Murdoch had given him, but Johnny joked that Scott’s redhead had a mean right hook, which he’d learned when he’d suggested he might take Scott’s place in her attentions.
Kate banished them for a six hour stretch each day between two in the afternoon and eight in the evening, determined they would eat and rest whether they wanted to or not. Johnny took care of the money transfer for the Houston’s deed, frequented the cantina, and exercised the horses. Sol, the livery owner, took pity on Johnny after finding him sacked out in Diablo’s stall, and offered him a cot in the tack room. Johnny agreed only if Sol accepted an extra “stall” fee, joking that his hay and oats could be split between Diablo and Remmie.
At night, though, they both stayed with Scott. Murdoch read, in between snoring naps in the chair. Johnny braided leather or sketched in a small notebook he carried in his saddlebags. Mostly, though, he watched his brother sleep, watching for signs of discomfort, or just trying to imagine what Scott was like as a child or a teenager, and what it would have been like if they’d grown up together.
Tonight, Scott was mildly feverish and very restless. Several times they’d had to brace his arm or leg to keep him from wrenching them. He had refused the evening dose of laudanum, and Johnny wondered if the pain was still too much to go without it.
“No! Don’t let them take us!” The sudden scream jerked Murdoch awake and startled Johnny into jumping out of his chair as Scott began to struggle, trying to get out of bed. Murdoch lent his hands and a soothing voice, trying to settle him. Scott was having none of it. He kept pulling at his broken leg, as if trying to get it out of the cast. “Not again! I’ll die first!” The harder they tried to restrain him, the more agitated and desperate he became.
Suddenly, Johnny remembered the leg-chain scar he’d seen on Scott’s ankle, which was now hidden by the cast. He suspected he knew what Scott was dreaming about. He took Scott’s head in both hands.
“Scott, you’re not there. You’re free. Open your eyes.” He patted him firmly on the cheek.
“No, we tried…” Scott moaned. “I’m sorry, Danny…” Tears slid down Scott’s cheeks, “God, please just take me, too…”
The words almost broke Johnny’s heart. He couldn’t bear to see his brother’s suffering. Scott was so deeply in his night terror, he couldn’t wake up to see himself safe. Taking a deep breath, Johnny tried something else.
“Lieutenant Lancer, attention! You’ve been freed. Lie still.”
Immediately, Scott stopped struggling. Murdoch looked on in stunned relief. Johnny made a “here goes nothing” face, and added, “I’m unchaining your leg.” Gently he lifted Scott’s cast and rested it on the pillow again. “Wait for the doctor.”
Scott murmured, “help them”, but remained still. After several moments, his breathing indicated he’d fallen back to asleep.
Murdoch straightened, arching his back to release the tense muscles. “Damn. I’d hoped the nightmares were gone. These last three nights were the longest he’s gone without one.” He reached out to stroke an errant lock of hair from Scott’s temple. “I thought maybe the head injury had knocked them out. I’d hoped…” He sighed.
Johnny looked down at his brother’s pale features. “The first one he had in the hotel scared the bejesus outta me, I thought someone was killing him. How long has he been out of the prison camp?”
“He came home in October after spending three weeks in a military hospital. The trip from Virginia was hard on him, even though they used medical cars on the trains. We had to stay in San Francisco for two weeks because he’d developed an infection. His back…” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he smoothed the blanket over Scott’s arm repeatedly. He shook his head to wipe away the image. “And he was terribly thin, like a walking skeleton. I was so afraid he’d step wrong and just break into a thousand pieces. But he was still Scott, steady, considerate, appreciative of the least little thing we did for him.”
Murdoch’s voice drifted. Johnny waited him out.
“And then the nightmares started.” The elder man’s voice was raspy, uneven. “If you can even call them nightmares, because he can’t be woken up from them, like tonight. It’s as if he’s back in prison, or in some battle, and even though he’s right in front of me, I can’t reach him. I can’t… help him.” Murdoch sank into the chair, never letting go of Scott’s hand. “Then the drinking, fighting, and gambling started, him not coming home for days at a time, and half the time needing to get bailed out of jail. When he is home, he’s angry or sullen, disrespectful, and reckless. Lord, so damn reckless.” He wiped a hand down his face. “This… this is close to my worst nightmare, but I can’t say it’s a surprise.” The steely blue eyes ran over Scott’s sleeping form, then met Johnny’s. There was a flash of shock reflected in them, as if he’d forgotten it was Johnny Madrid he was talking to.
Johnny gave him a moment before quietly asking, “Did something specific seem to trigger the nightmares?”
Murdoch nodded but didn’t answer for a long stretch.
“His grandfather visited with us.”
Johnny raised his eyebrows. “The one from Boston?”
The lying, selfish, controlling grandfather who kept Scott away from you for ten years? Not that I should judge because, apparently, Mama did the same thing…
Murdoch nodded without looking away from Scott’s face.
Why would you let someone like that back into Scott’s life?
“Because for all he is, for all he did, Harlan is still Scott’s grandfather and they care about each other. He was worried too while Scott was serving in the Calvary, and more so when we’d gotten word he’d been taken prisoner. He had wanted Scott to recover in Boston, but Scott wanted to come home. At first Scott seemed very happy to see him, and even told me he was grateful I opened our home to Harlan after all that had happened between us.”
Johnny jumped up to pace, feeling his anger and agitation growing. “But then the old coot did something to cause the dreams. Do you think he used to beat on Scott and you just didn’t know? Stuff like that can come back, even years later into dreams…”
Johnny felt Murdoch’s eyes on him, and quickly looked away, feeling as if the older man could read too much into his words.
“No. I know Harlan never beat Scott. He’d never even had a spanking before he came to live with me. And Harlan seemed as befuddled by Scott’s abrupt change in personality as I was. It was probably just a coincidence, although I certainly tried to find a reason to blame Harlan. But, whatever triggered it, it’s been five months of hell…for all of us. Sam, our doctor has tried to help…” Murdoch’s voice trailed and he shook his head. “He won’t talk to any of us. Did he… talk to you at all?”
The simple question hit Johnny like a right cross.
“No, in fact my attempt to get him to talk is what led him to… do this,” he replied softly.
“What do you mean?” The grizzly growl was back.
Johnny didn’t shy from it, even though Murdoch’s initial belief would be proved right, this was all his fault. He paced back to stand behind his chair, both hands grabbing the wooden back. “I, uh, told him I knew something about nightmares and… about wanting to do anything to make them go away for good.”
The silence that followed lay like a stifling blanket over them. Johnny half expected Murdoch to come at him again. He wasn’t sure he’d fight it. But he was shocked at the question that came next.
“Do you… think he did this on purpose?”
It was so quietly and unsteadily asked, Johnny had to look up to be sure Murdoch had actually spoken. The white-faced tension in the older man’s face was proof he had. Johnny followed Murdoch’s gaze to Scott’s face.
Did he think that?
“I don’t know him well enough to know. But…”
Tread carefully here, Madrid. The man is twice your size and you’ve already got a couple cracked ribs.
“But, he kept talking about all the things we could do together, working the ranch, hunting, maybe adding a horse breeding and training program at Lancer. He sure was desperate for the dreams to stop. But he didn’t talk like someone who couldn’t see a future with him in it.”
Murdoch pondered that. “But did you tell him no?” The anger and mistrust was back, as strong as ever. “Did you just wipe that future right out of his mind?”
“Like you would have let that future happen?” Johnny flared. “It was a crazy idea. You wouldn’t have let me set foot on your ranch, never mind become a partner in it. And I had no intention of working for the bastard who threw me and Mama to the wolves.”
“I did not throw you and your mother out!”
Scott shifted and grimaced at the angry retort. Murdoch lowered his voice.
“It was always my dream to have you boys as partners.” The hiss with which the words came out seemed to belie them. “But you chose to live by the gun, to become a killer for hire, instead. How can you expect me to bring that into my home?”
“Oh, I don’t expect it, old man. Never did. “Johnny’s voice in contrast was deathly quiet. “But Scott apparently didn’t give up on me as easily as you did, so now here we are. Either we can work together to try to find a way to help him, or we can tear each other’s guts out, and rip his heart out at the same time. It’s up to you.”
“It’s not just up to me. You’re in this now, like it or not. You think you can hang around for a few days, until he’s out of the woods, and then just run off to your next gunfight? What do you think that is going to do to him? It’s better if you go now, let him deal with the hard reality all at once instead of getting his hopes up.”
Is that what he was planning to do? It certainly matched the way he was thinking before Scott was hurt. Maybe it would be better if he left now. Better for both of them, because every day he stayed made the thought of leaving harder on him, too. But what was the alternative? He certainly couldn’t go to Lancer, couldn’t just hang up his rig and send out a notice that Johnny Madrid had retired. He was only nineteen for crying out loud. Absolutely prime for a gunfighter. And the money he could command…
Who am I fooling? I don’t care about the money. Didn’t I get into this mess because I was moving north trying to outrun my reputation rather than heighten it? A horse ranch a few states away would be perfect. Maybe Scott would want to partner with me…
Sure, Madrid, he’s really going to give up his partnership in one of the biggest ranches in California to start a rinky-dink horse operation with you in Nowheresville. Damn, but you’ve got to admit the old man has a point.
Scott’s week is up tomorrow.
It seems he’s turned the corner. And you still need to find Lee Houston’s murderer…
But I don’t want to go.
Dammit, how did I get myself into this mess?
“Well, you can cut the air in here with a knife!” Kate harrumphed, arms crossed as she surveyed the three men in front of her, one of whom was still asleep, so her admonishment was hushed. But no less disgruntled. “What did I tell you men about working things out?”
“With all due respect, Nurse Kate,” Murdoch responded stiffly, but equally quietly, “things are not quite that simple.”
“Actually, Mr Lancer, with all due respect, in my world they are. And this room is my world. So I meant what I said. You can fix it or you can fake it, but if you both want to be allowed to stay, you will put whatever is between you away. Scott will have a tension-free room or he will have a brother- and father-free room. Is that understood?”
Without looking at each other, Johnny and Murdoch each nodded.
“Very well, then, let’s see if we can get Scott here to wake up and have some breakfast.”
Scott’s fever had blessedly broken just before dawn, and after some initial grogginess, he was able to sit up and drink broth with only minimal assistance and fussing from Murdoch.
“If you’re a good boy, you might graduate to mush,” Johnny teased, stretching carefully to avoid tweaking his ribs.
“Very amusing, little brother, let me hold onto the bed rail so I don’t fall off the bed laughing.”
Murdoch scowled at the “little brother” nickname, and it deepened when Johnny quipped, “I think you’ve had enough falls lately, Boston. I’ll just hafta tone down the humor a bit.”
“That would be pretty hard to do.” Scott taunted back with a grin. He glanced out the brightly curtained window. “Is that the balcony I fell off of?” He didn’t notice that both men froze at the innocent question.
Johnny recovered first, leaning down to Scott’s angle to see what he was looking at. “Yup, that’s the one.”
“And what exactly was I doing when that happened?” He immediately picked up on their uncomfortable expressions. “Or is that a question I shouldn’t be asking in front of my staunchly Christian father?”
“Scott!” Murdoch admonished. “This isn’t a joking matter.”
“So true, Father, especially from this end of things.” He thumped his arm cast against his leg cast. “How soon can we go home?”
The silence in the room became lethal.
“Or am I to be taken off to jail as soon as I am recovered for some offense I committed of which I have absolutely no recollection?”
“Scott, your glibness is not appreciated. You have barely woken up from a four day coma. Even leaving your bed is not in the foreseeable future, never mind a two day travel home. Slow down, and concentrate on getting rest, fluids, and a little bit of food. The rest will take time.”
Scott saw no assistance from Johnny’s quarter either. He sighed.
Then the word “time” rang sharply in his head.
“What day is it?”
“Friday, the fifteenth.”
Murdoch answered, but Scott’s eyes never left Johnny’s face. He paled. His week was up. He looked for something in Johnny’s eyes to tell him what his brother was thinking, but the mask was unreadable.
“I, uh need to talk to you.” Scott stammered, then turned to Murdoch. “With each of you. Alone.”
“Take a rest first, we’re not going anywhere.” Murdoch suggested, unwittingly playing into Scott’s deepest fear.
“No. Now. Johnny first.”
“Father, please, I’m a grown man and know what I can and cannot handle. What I cannot handle right now is you coddling me or trying to keep me away from my brother.” As if to amend the harshness of the last few words, Scott laid his hand on Murdoch’s arm. “Please. We’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly, and with a warning look in Johnny’s direction, Murdoch stood. “I’ll go send a telegram to Teresa and Sam to let them know how you’re doing. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Johnny meandered over to the window, leaning against the frame with his arms crossed as the door closed behind Murdoch. Scott noticed his breath hitched slightly as he turned.
“Did Father give you that black eye and whatever is going on with your ribs?”
Johnny gave him a lazy smile. “I done told ya, Scott, it was the redhead. She did not see me as a suitable substitute for your charms.”
“Johnny, come on, has he threatened you? I’m going to talk to him. He has no right…” It was his turn to catch his breath as he sat up straighter in bed.
“Easy, there, Boston, don’t be riling them sore muscles. Nobody’s threatening anybody. Not to mention, if he was, I’m pretty darn capable of taking care of myself. Been doing that a long time.”
“But you shouldn’t have had to, Johnny. And he needs to see you aren’t the vicious gunfighter he thinks you are.”
“I’m not? I think you’re the one not seeing straight. That’s exactly what I am.” Johnny’s voice became hard, cold.
“A gunfighter, yes, vicious, no. Johnny, look what you did for the Houstons, complete strangers. That’s not a man with a gunfighter’s heart. And the stories Cipriano told me of all the things you’ve done for people in Mexico for no money, no glory.”
“How do you know there wasn’t money? The Rurales are rich bastards. Don’t you think I grabbed a little bit of it on my way out?”
“If you did, I’d bet my Remington rifle you gave it back to the people the Rurales stole it from.” He saw the tiniest quirk of Johnny’s lips to confirm his suspicion and grinned. “I’m glad I was right because I really like my rifle.”
“Too bad, I think I saw the old man trade it to that Greenspan fellow at the hotel to cover your gambling debts.” Now Johnny’s smile was full-blown.
“Very funny. So tell me, what the hell kind of trouble did I get myself into that I can’t remember?”
“Besides the drinking, gambling, womanizing..?” Johnny moved over to sit in the chair by Scott’s bed, his smile drifting away. “You and I got into a fight of sorts…”
“You pushed me off the balcony?” Scott asked incredulously.
“No, jeez, Boston, give me a little credit. Didn’t you just get done trying to convince me that I’m not vicious?”
“Yes, sorry, it’s just… I know I can be a bit irritating when I drink.”
Johnny’s eyebrows lifted. “A bit? That’s like saying I know how to shoot a bit.”
Properly chastised, Scott hung his head for a moment. “So did I give you the black eye and…” he leaned over to undo one of the buttons on Johnny’s shirt before he could stop him, “and what looks like some cracked ribs?”
“You think pretty highly of yourself, don’t ya there Boston? You might have gotten in one punch, but not two. Besides, I’m the one who sucker-punched you.”
“Before you didn’t throw me off the balcony. Wait. I think I remember you punching me.” Scott’s hand went to his right cheek. “When we were talking about…oh. Sorry.”
“Like I said that night, you ain’t gotta apologize for telling me a truth I didn’t want to hear.” Johnny hung his head, his hands clasped between his knees. He blew his air out tightly and raised his head. “We were talking about the nightmares, Scott. And I said something dumb about knowing what it’s like to want to stop them anyway you can…”
Scott’s eyes widened and his stomach twisted. “So I jumped?”
He could feel the sapphire eyes searching his. It felt like forever before Johnny answered.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”
Suddenly Scott could breathe again.
“I think… hope you just drank too much. Ellen, the woman you were with, said you were singing and yelling to her to come see the beautiful sunrise… and you climbed up on the railing and lost your balance.”
Scott rubbed his forehead, a wry look on his face. “I certainly hope if I was trying to end it, I would have been smart enough to pick something higher than a third floor balcony.”
“That is not funny, Scott!” Johnny was out of the chair in an instant, pointing and glaring at him. “I thought you were dead! And it was my fault because I upset you! I only just got to meet you and… and I thought you were dead!”
Scott was moved by the absolute anguish in Johnny’s words. “I’m sorry, I…”
“Then we didn’t know if you were gonna wake up, or be paralyzed, or die of pneumonia. All those years we lost, and you do something stupid like that, and then think it’s a joke.”
“I know it’s not a joke, Johnny,” Scott said softly. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
The look in his little brother’s eyes was haunting, desperate.
“You want me to help make it go away. But I don’t know how. I only made it worse and you almost died. I can’t…”
“What on earth is going on in here?!” Hansen demanded flinging open the door. “I warned you both that there’s no…” He stopped mid-sentence, stunned to find Murdoch wasn’t even in the room. He set his glare on Johnny. “You need to leave.”
“No!” Scott struggled to get out of bed, casts and all. “No, it’s my fault.” Hansen held him back, soon joined by Kate. He craned his neck to look around them at Johnny who was backing toward the doorway. “Please don’t go, Johnny. I’m sorry.”
Johnny, white-faced, shook his head, then bolted out the door, almost taking out Murdoch who was just walking in, having planned to spend the next twenty minutes of his exile in the waiting room.
“What the hell…”
Scott struggled harder against the hands that held him. “Please, Father, you have to stop him. Don’t let him ride out.”
Murdoch moved into the room, glancing after Johnny as the boy disappeared out the front door of the office. He could have predicted this, that Johnny would run. If only he’d gone before Scott had woken up. “Let him go, son. It’s better this way.”
“Better for who?” Scott’s eyes shot fire. “Maybe for you. Prove yourself right for not bringing him home four years ago. Not for me. I swear if you don’t go after him now, I will never forgive you, and I’ll never go home again.”
“Scott, that’s completely uncalled for. You may have some idealized vision of who your brother is, but I have a family and a ranch to protect.”
“Well, you’ll have one less family member if you don’t go after him. I mean it, Father. You’re not welcome in this room or in my life if you don’t try.” Scott turned his face away, cursing his inability to go after his brother, overwhelmed by the pain of broken limbs and torn muscles, but none of it as agonizing as the thought of losing his brother…again.
Johnny almost laughed at the wide-eyed panic that ensued when he stormed into the bank. Almost. Patrons and clerks alike raised their hands, eyeing his low-slung gun, even though it was still looped firmly in its holster, well-aware since the accident that Johnny Madrid was in town. Taking a calming breath, he too raised his hands, and used one of them to tip his hat to the hyperventilating lady closest to him.
“Sorry for the dramatic entrance, ma’am.” To the trembling clerk, he asked, “Might Mr Porter be available?”
The clerk tried to speak, but no sound emerged. He pointed with his pencil at Porter’s door. Johnny knocked, and tipped his hat again to those congregated in the main room as he was called to enter. Porter didn’t look a whole lot less nervous than the others to see him, but he put on a smile as he rose and offered Johnny a seat.
“I won’t be staying long. I need my money.”
“All of it?” Porter’s dismay was clear. “That’s a lot of money to be carrying. If you’d like me to wire…”
“All I need is two hundred. The rest you can put back in Scott Lancer’s account.”
“But the money is yours…”
“Not anymore. He paid me in advance for work I didn’t do because of his accident. Just the two hundred, please. Oh, and the thousand goes to Scott Lancer directly, nothing his old man can touch or put a hold on.”
“Yes sir, I understand. Should the twenty one dollar holding fee come out of the two hundred, or the one thousand?”
Johnny gritted his teeth. “The two hundred, but please be quick. I need to get going.”
After stashing the money in his boot under cover of the side alley, Johnny took a wide corner to the livery, avoiding the line of sight of the Doc’s front room window. He half expected to see Scott hobbling out the door in his casts and nightshirt to come after him. What he didn’t expect to see was a very agitated Murdoch Lancer waiting for him by Diablo’s stall.
“I’m leaving as fast as I can. No need to play sentry.” Johnny grabbed a brush and squeezed in beside Diablo to clean off the hay the horse had been lounging in.
“Scott doesn’t want you to leave.” The words sounded dredged from hell.
“Yeah, well, luckily he’s not in a position to stop me.”
“He asked me to.”
Johnny chuckled darkly. “We both know how well that’ll work.”
“He said he won’t come home if you don’t come with us.”
Johnny sighed. “Whatever Scott wants from me isn’t something I have to give. I can’t make the nightmares go away. I can’t be the little brother he always dreamed of having. I’m not…” He stopped, bowing his head for a moment.
I’m not good enough. He deserves better.
“You’re the only little brother he has.” A heavy sigh. “And, I think, the only hope we have of getting him through this.”
Johnny’s head shot up, unable to believe that had come from Murdoch’s mouth. Murdoch stared back at him, his lips in a tight line, as if they’d snapped closed just a second too late to catch his words.
“What kind of game is this, old man?” Johnny snarled.
Murdoch crossed his arms, studying the tops of his boots, and exhaling tightly. “I wish I knew, John. I wish I knew.” His head lifted but he didn’t meet Johnny’s gaze. “I had thought I’d just make it look good, take my time saddling Toby, ride out of town a ways. I’m not the best tracker and there’s a few different cut offs outside of town. I could say I tried, but I lost you.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “But..?”
“But… I lost you twice already, once when your mother took you, and again when I found out my blue-eyed little boy had become Johnny Madrid. I can’t lose you again.”
“I’m still Johnny Madrid, still a gunfighter.” Johnny challenged.
“Yes, you are.” Murdoch raised his eyes to Johnny’s. “And you’re still my blue-eyed son, and Scott’s little brother. He needs you. And, dammit Johnny, I think I need you, too. I want my family back.”
“It ain’t that easy. We were never a family, not really, spread all over the place. You and I can’t even stand to be in the same room together. How is that going to help Scott out?”
“I don’t know. But I do know if we don’t try, we’re both going to lose him. We were lucky this time, just a broken leg and arm. It could have been a broken neck, or a bullet because he gets drunk and angers the wrong person…”
“…or he takes sleeping powder on top of a belly full of whiskey, and doesn’t wake up in the morning.” Johnny finished softly.
Murdoch looked up sharply, saw the truth in Johnny’s eyes, and puffed his air out.
“Please don’t leave.”
Johnny felt his insides knot. Could he do this? He’d already almost killed Scott by saying the wrong thing. And he knew he and Murdoch were going to be like dynamite and a lit fuse. His reputation would surely follow him to Lancer. What if Scott, or that girl they kept talking about, got caught in the crossfire?
He couldn’t deny he wanted to. He wanted to get to know Scott, and maybe even get to know this hulk of a man whom Scott had forgiven for his abandonment. He hated his life as a gunfighter, had thought more than once about drawing just a bit too slowly in the next dance.
If he’d been smart, he would have taken the $1,000 bounty and ridden out without a backward glance. But he hadn’t done that. And now he had a brother who was hurting and needed him. How could he turn his back on that? He sighed and set the brush on the stall ledge.
“I’ll go with you to talk to him.”
Scott was sitting up in bed, looking worn out and frazzled, pale and unwell.
“Tsk, tsk, Boston, I leave ya for a few minutes and look at ya. Even the cat wouldn’t have bothered dragging ya in.” Johnny’s heart lifted, seeing the light in Scott’s eyes.
“You came back!”
So much expectation in that exclamation.
“So here’s the deal.” Johnny turned a straight-backed chair around, set it close to the bed, and straddled it, his hands folded on the top. “I do need to go away for a few days. Uht, let me finish. You know I’ve got some unfinished business in Camden.”
“We can wire the money…”
“I already did. This is about finding the man who murdered Randy’s father, and dealing with that fat ass Booth, who may well be one and the same.”
“It sounds like there’s more than one person involved. You can’t go alone.”
“Really? You think I can’t handle a few bankers and their goons?” Johnny gave Scott his best Madrid look.
“Well, no. I mean, yes, I’m sure you can handle it alone but you shouldn’t have to.”
“No worries. I imagine there are a few other landowners over that way who’ll be willing to lend a hand to give Booth what he’s due.”
Johnny inhaled tightly, glanced at Murdoch’s immobile features, then quipped, “Well, I hear Lancer is short one bronco-buster and I just happen to know someone who’s pretty good at it.”
The hope in Scott’s eyes made Johnny’s heart skip a beat. “You promise?”
Oh God, how does he have such faith in me? Please don’t let me let him down.
“Hey, I ain’t collected on my second grand yet. I still have to earn that listening money.”
It was the strangest feeling.
Coming home to a place he couldn’t remember, to a family he barely knew, with so much expectation weighing on his shoulders.
Dealing with Booth and his cronies had been a breeze compared to this. He’d truly been in his element; working with the farmers to set up a snare, goading a whimpering Booth into confessing his sins, letting Randy be the one to announce to the terrorized homesteaders that they now owned their land free and clear. Booth escaped the gallows by a hair because he hadn’t actually ordered Lee Houston’s or Donald Pomley’s deaths, but his soft, pampered hands would spend the next twenty five years at hard prison labor. Johnny quietly rode out of town as a crowd gathered to watch the other two convicted murderers be hung in the town square.
He’d hoped to make as quiet an arrival at Lancer as he had a departure from Camden, but it seemed every ranch hand stopped work as he rode through the archway, shouting greetings and waving their hats. Several women gathered as well, calling out blessings and crossing themselves. He waved back self-consciously, smiling and tipping his hat to the women. A small group of children ran alongside as he entered the front yard, ignoring their parents’ admonishments not to startle the horse. Diablo shied initially, but quickly calmed under Johnny’s sure-handed guidance. Two of the older boys argued over who would take Diablo to the barn.
“I appreciate the offer, boys, but Diablo gets pretty nippy in new situations. I’ll hitch him here by the water trough and come out in a bit to take him to the barn.” Johnny dismounted and loosened the cinch, wishing the crowd of people that descended on him would somehow magically disappear.
A middle aged woman stepped forward as he turned and shyly said in Spanish, “Mr Madrid, I am Rosa Alejandro. I wish to thank you for helping my cousin, Renaldo in Nogales. He said you saved his family and those of his neighbors from an evil man named Carrano.”
Johnny smiled and tipped his hat, responding quietly, “I remember Renaldo. And his little boy…Jesus?” She nodded excitedly. “I don’t think I did too much to help there, but I’m glad to hear it worked out. And please, my name is Johnny.”
Several more people approached, some welcoming him as El Patron’s son, others as Johnny Madrid. The names and faces began to blur amid the excited chatter.
Until a loud, unmistakable voice quelled them.
“Thank you all for making Johnny feel so welcomed. I’m sure he’d like to get inside and have something to drink. Please get back to work.”
Johnny turned. Despite knowing it was Murdoch who had spoken, he was still stunned at the size and proximity of the man. The fact that Murdoch was standing on the landing with Johnny still on the ground made his height all that much more impressive. Johnny had no doubt that it was the many welcomes for “Madrid” that thinned Murdoch’s lips into a tight line.
Behind Murdoch was a young girl Johnny assumed was Teresa, Murdoch’s ward; an older Mexican woman who was nearly as round as she was tall; a bespectacled man a few years Murdoch’s senior; and hobbling out the door on a contraption that looked part crutch and part torture chamber was Scott. Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the ridiculous grin on his brother’s face.
He stepped onto the landing and greeted each of the people as Murdoch introduced them. Teresa grabbed both his hands in a tight squeeze. “We’re so glad to have you home, Johnny!”
Next Maria flung her arms around him, babbling in rapid-fire Spanish that he may not remember her, but she was sure he’d remember her tortilla soup which was his favorite as a niño. Johnny guessed the gentleman was the doctor “Sam” by the way the man scowled at Scott and muttered something about being unable to fix the broken neck Scott was liable to end up with using that totally “unsanctioned excuse for an accident waiting to happen.”
Johnny grinned at his unrepentant brother. “Well, Boston, I’d say it’s good to see you up, but I’m afraid I’d jinx whatever the heck that is that’s holding you there.”
“Oh ye of little faith,” Scott gloated as he turned to go back in and very nearly ended up in a heap on the floor. Multiple hands reached out to steady him, but he brushed them off and clomped his way into the great room. Johnny followed a few paces behind, alternately watching Scott and looking around the room, hoping something would feel familiar. Nothing did.
Teresa brought in lemonade and cookies, offering to make Johnny a sandwich if he needed something more substantial to tide him over until supper, still four hours away.
“These are perfect, Miss Teresa. I’ve had a hankering for oatmeal raisin cookies for weeks now.”
“Ever since he ate every last one at the Belmont,” Scott piped up. “Their cook told me she had to make triple batches while he was there. And she charged me extra for every last one.”
Everyone laughed and the conversation flowed easily from there. Johnny listened more than spoke, carefully assessing Scott, and to a lesser extent, Murdoch, as time passed.
Scott looked far better than Johnny had expected, although his eyes remained sunken, his face gaunt. He proudly explained how he and Jose, one of the ranch hands, had fashioned the crutch with an arm board, handhold, and shoulder strap to accommodate his broken arm. His cheerfulness and enthusiasm seemed a bit forced; Johnny was anxious for the opportunity to speak with him alone to get a truer measure of how he was doing.
Murdoch, on the other hand, was somber and ill at ease. Johnny imagined having the dreaded gunfighter, Johnny Madrid, in his home was not sitting well. Johnny noted the intensity with which Sam’s gaze shifted between the two men, putting the doctor on the list of people Johnny wanted to talk to.
Teresa showed Johnny to his room to “rest and get changed for dinner”. At his elevated eyebrow, she smiled. “When Scott came here from Boston to live, he would put on a suit and tie for dinner every night. Murdoch and my father didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, so we started dressing up for dinner. Over time, it changed to mean a clean shirt for the men, and no riding breeches for me. Will the rest of your things be coming in the next few days?”
“This is it.” Johnny grinned as he lifted his saddle bags. “You’re in luck though, my other shirt is clean.”
“Other shirt? One other shirt?” Teresa squeaked.
“I’m afraid so.” Johnny looked around the room, one Teresa said had been his before, but, again, there was nothing familiar about it.
“We’ll take you in to Morro Coyo tomorrow to get you some more clothes. Working on the ranch is pretty messy and we only do laundry twice a week.” She seemed worried he’d be upset by that, so he smiled and nodded, although he wasn’t anxious to spend what little money he had left on clothes he wouldn’t be able to fit into his saddlebags when it was time to move on. He was used to washing his own clothes and could wash his work shirt when he took it off at night to “dress for dinner”, then wear his dinner shirt for work the next day to allow his other shirt to dry by dinner time. Maybe one more shirt would be good though, as ranch work tended to lead to a lot of mending and might put a shirt out of commission for more than a day. He did his own mending too, but the outcome didn’t often match what he imagined a dinner shirt should look like. In fact, his clean shirt was relatively new after his oft-mended blue one had finally been reduced to bandage rolls settled deep in his saddlebags.
She left him be. Glad for the solitude, he pulled one of the two chairs in the room up to the window and looked out. He had a perfect view of the massive barn where he’d stabled Diablo, the near paddocks, and then grazing pastures and rolling hills beyond. In the far distance, dark crags of gray rock climbed up toward the clouds. He remembered Murdoch describing the land to Scott when he was unconscious. As much as Johnny had tried to envision Lancer at the time, nothing came close to its beauty in reality.
Resting his chin on his folded arms on the sill, Johnny tried to imagine growing up here, sharing good times and brotherly spats with Scott, playing with other kids like the ones who ran so freely across the yard, never hearing the words “mestizo” or “halfbreed” because here he was just El Patron’s blue-eyed son. Every night there would have been food on the table, no scrounging behind the cantina or stealing in order to fill an aching belly.
He looked around the room, at the overstuffed feather mattress, piles of warm quilts, even rugs for his feet on chilly mornings. And privacy. A place to escape to when the world started crashing down. No need to become invisible when Mama brought a man home or to plug his ears to not hear the sounds they made behind his turned back.
Johnny bowed his forehead against his hands. He rarely allowed himself to lament his childhood. It was what it was, and he had survived it. Others hadn’t been as lucky. It was hard, though, reconciling it with this luxury, this stability that should have been his.
That now could be his.
If he stayed.
If his past didn’t swoop down one day to take it all away.
If he could find a way to help Scott, and live with Murdoch, and become a rancher.
Johnny exhaled heavily. So many ifs, and not nearly enough answers.
Heavy footfalls on the stairs presaged a sharp knock on the door.
“Come in.” He stood as Murdoch entered and closed the door behind himself.
“I wanted to speak with you privately before you talk to Scott.”
Johnny waited, feeling Murdoch’s discomfort as the ensuing silence stretched, but not of a mind to ease it. He felt off balance, an invited but somewhat unwelcome visitor in his own home. He was glad for any small way to level the playing field with the older man.
Murdoch looked around the room, his gaze landing on a vase of flowers that someone, probably Teresa, had placed on the mantel. “He’s going to tell you he’s fine, that the nightmares have gone away. We moved his room downstairs so he could get around a bit, so he thinks we don’t hear them, or hear him pacing at night. We do. Or I do, at least. I think with Teresa’s room being farther back, she may not. She hasn’t said anything anyway. And she seems… I don’t know, lighter, I guess, like she isn’t worrying about him as much.”
Murdoch took a step toward the window, crossing his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes as if looking for answers in the distance. “He’s been very anxious since you left, worrying whether you would work things out in Camden, and whether you would really come here afterwards.”
“I gathered that.”
Murdoch had sent wires to Johnny, updating him on Scott’s progress and their plan to travel back to Lancer, each one ending with “confirm plans to meet at L”. Each time, Johnny had wired back, “plans unchanged” until the last one when he sent that he’d be arriving at Lancer between the twelfth and fourteenth.
Murdoch’s features drew into a scowl. “He’s been like a kid at Christmas, counting down the days. If you think that crutch thing is something, wait until you see what he and Jose rigged up so he can get in and out of the wagon to take you on a tour of Lancer, totally against Sam’s advice I might add. He’s been bugging Sam to take the casts off early. I’m waiting for the day he takes a hacksaw to them.”
Johnny smiled, thinking that was something he would do, in fact had done when he was twelve and decided the itching of the cast on his arm in the heat of summer was far worse than any stupid broken bone. Murdoch looked over and Johnny quickly hid his smile away.
“How bad was the trip here for him?”
Murdoch fiddled with the window lock, unlatching then resetting it. “He actually did very well with it. The hardest part for him was getting in and out of the back of the wagon. We decided after the first night that the comfort of a hotel wasn’t worth the discomfort of getting inside. We camped out and he slept in the wagon.”
“He still doesn’t look like he’s eating. And I could tell before you said anything that he ain’t been sleeping much.”
“He’s been having some trouble with his stomach. Sam thinks he may have an ulcer from all the stress and drinking.”
Johnny ran his fingers over the back of the chair. “And how’s that been, the drinking?”
Murdoch glanced over, but didn’t quite meet Johnny’s gaze. His tight facial features said he didn’t like sharing private family matters with this virtual stranger –who just happened to also be his son.
“It depends on the day, or more accurately, on the night. Sometimes, he has a single brandy in the evening, others I come down in the morning to a bottle two-thirds gone.”
“What does the Doc think? He have any ideas what we should do?”
Murdoch exhaled harshly. “He says Scott has to talk about whatever is driving the nightmares. Has to come to terms with what happened. But every time we try to get him to… well, let’s just say I’ve replaced quite a few brandy glasses, window panes, and even a painting recently.”
Johnny grimaced. “Well, I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me. Speaking of work, are those horses in the far paddock the ones that need breaking for the army?”
Murdoch followed Johnny’s gaze. “Yes, we brought them in when we got your telegram. Are you sure you’re up to breaking them? You weren’t just using that as a reason with Scott to come?”
Johnny’s lips quirked into a smile. “I’m sure. I’ll get to them first thing in the morning. Now that my ribs are finally healed up, I’m good to go.”
Murdoch opened his mouth, and for the briefest moment, Johnny thought he might apologize for punching him. But instead the elder man turned for the door. “Dinner is precisely at six and a clean shirt is expected.”
As the door closed behind the mountain, Johnny let out a sigh.
Give me a gunfight any day.
“No…trap! Come back!”
Johnny sat bolt upright in bed at the cries, his heart pounding. The voice was faint, muted by walls and floor boards, but Johnny’s hearing was acute, especially when he slept in a strange place. He swung his feet off the bed and stood there in the darkness, listening.
He didn’t know if he should go to Scott or let the adrenaline surge pass and talk to him the next day.
And say what? He was fearful of pushing Scott too hard again, yet perhaps more afraid of leaving his brother to suffer such torment in isolation.
As the nighttime quiet returned, Johnny sank back down onto the bed. Who was he to think he could help Scott with his nightmares anyway, when he was often plagued by his own?
Leaning back against the headboard, Johnny heard the soft click of the door across the hall and quiet footfalls pausing at the upper landing of the stairs. He wondered if Murdoch struggled with the same indecision he did, or if he was poised to intervene if tonight was one where Scott sought solace in the liquor cabinet.
After several long minutes, the footsteps retraced their path and the heavy wooden door snicked softly closed.
Johnny stared off into the darkness, suspecting there would be no more sleep for any of them this night.
“Who whee, Boston, that grulla mare is some feisty! She sure is gonna make some spirited and pretty babies.” Johnny hoisted himself up to sit beside his brother on the hay bales that had been stacked by the paddock so Scott could watch the horse breaking with both his casted arm and leg supported. “I ain’t been tossed that far by a lady since I had a run-in with a preacher’s daughter in El Paso a couple years ago.”
Scott laughed, clapping Johnny on his sweat-soaked and dirt-covered back. “I seem to recall you didn’t have much luck with a certain redhead in Modesto either. Maybe your game is slipping, little brother.”
Johnny winced. “Now, there I was just trying to do you a favor by sidetracking the fiery Miss Ellie, knowing you preferred the sweet attention of Miss Caroline, whose pretty blond curls match yours…”
Scott swatted Johnny’s hand away as it attempted an insolent flip of a lock of his hair.
“Watch it, or you’ll end up with another black eye.”
Johnny lounged back, plucking a straw to put between his teeth, watching the mare as she circled the paddock, nostrils flaring. “Doc Sam will truss you up in traction if you break your cast.”
Scott followed Johnny’s gaze. “I think you won her over.”
“No, the mare, you idiot. She’s looking for you.”
Johnny grinned, dropping down off the hay bales to approach the fence. “Is that right, girl?” he said softly, laying his hand out to her. “Are you looking for me?”
The mare snorted and pawed the ground. She backed up, ran a quick semi-circle, then returned to stand in front of him. He continued to talk to her quietly, soothingly, until she finally approached and allowed him to pet her muzzle. “There’s a strong girl. Just letting me know it ain’t gonna be all on my terms, eh? I got the message.” He rubbed his aching wrist, gave her one last pat, and withdrew. She nodded her head as if to say, “Good, then” and cantered off to join the other mares.
Johnny turned to see his brother chuckling at him. “I’m not sure who was breaking whom in that particular match-up.” Scott nodded toward Johnny’s wrist. “Should Sam get out his casting supplies?”
“Nah, it’s fine.” Johnny tipped his hat back on his head, swiping his arm across his forehead. “I knew I shoulda left her til tomorrow when I wasn’t quite so wore out. But the way she kept looking at me…”
Scott laughed as he moved to get down from his perch, grunting his displeasure as Johnny stepped in to help. “I have noted that you are a sucker for a feisty woman, my brother. I have just the person in mind to introduce you to the next time we’re in Green River.”
“Do tell, Boston, do tell.” Johnny helped Scott transverse the yard, his crutch contraption far less reliable on the uneven earth.
As Scott launched into a detailed description of one Lindsay Baines, Johnny doused himself under the water pump, hoping to get presentable enough for lunch. He dried his face, hair, and hands with one of the towels from the stack beside the pump, then used the damp cloth to wipe the outermost layer of sweat and grime from his shirt and pants.
Unhappy with the results, and thinking he was going to have to agree with Teresa and splurge on a few more shirts, he said, “Maybe I should go out and eat with the crew behind the bunkhouse. I’m not fit to sit at Maria’s table.”
“Nonsense, you’re fine.” Scott slung his uncasted arm across Johnny’s shoulder. “I can’t wait to hear what Murdoch has to say about the incredible way you broke all those horses. He was watching, you know.”
“He was?” Johnny stopped, now even more uneasy about going inside.
“He sure was. And you should have seen the look on his face when you rode that roan stallion. The hands had bets going that it couldn’t be done. And you sweet-talked that behemoth right down into a purring kitten. We were saying we’ve never seen anything like it.”
Murdoch basically said the same thing over lunch. Uncomfortable with the effusive praise from the man he’d hated most of his life, Johnny kept his head down and murmured, “I guess you missed the part where the grulla mare tossed me into the fence.”
Murdoch glanced at Scott. “I must have gone back into the house by then. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, sure.” A funny feeling shivered through Johnny at Murdoch’s concern.
Murdoch checked with Scott, who nodded, but also tapped his left wrist.
“Just to be safe, we’ll have Sam take a look at you when he comes out this evening for dinner and to check on Scott. Let Scott show you around a bit this afternoon. You can get back to the horses in a day or two.”
“I’m fine.” Johnny argued.
“And we need to keep you that way. If you think that mare needs to be released…”
“No!” Johnny caught his shout and settled his voice. “She’s a good horse. It wasn’t her fault I read her wrong.”
Scott swallowed his bite of sandwich and grinned at Murdoch. “Johnny wants to keep her to breed, says she’ll have spirited and pretty babies.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows. “Is that so, John? This is a cattle ranch, you understand, not a horse ranch. We occasionally break wild horses that we catch for the army or even to train a few as cow ponies, we don’t breed them.”
Johnny stared harder at his plate, biting down anger. His response was low and even. “Yes, I’m aware that’s what I was hired for. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.”
As he set down his napkin and rose, Murdoch countered, “I said you’re done for the day. Please ask Jose to help set up the wagon for Scott so you can take your tour.”
Johnny hesitated briefly, then gave a curt nod and left.
Scott pushed his plate away. “Well, that certainly could have gone a lot better…”
Murdoch scowled. “He needs to understand what is expected of him here and who calls the tune.”
“Oh, I think you made that very clear, sir.” Scott got to his feet, awkwardly maneuvering his crutch around the chair leg. He hobbled toward the door, but stopped as Murdoch spoke again.
“Do you think his arm is hurt? Maybe you should put off the wagon ride as he’ll need to drive. You can wait and go tomorrow after Sam’s had a chance to check him over.”
A small smile touched Scott’s lips, hearing the tiniest crack in their father’s tough outer shell. “I think he’s fine as he says, but if I notice anything while we’re out, we’ll come right back.”
Scott scuffed as quietly as possible to the great room, wishing he’d stopped to put a sock on his uncasted foot. The floorboards felt like ice. He pulled his robe more tightly around himself to ward off the chill, but all it accomplished was pressing his sweat-damp nightshirt against his back, making him shiver.
The nightmare had been one of the milder ones –at least he hadn’t woken up screaming. Yet, sometimes, they were worse. They were more diffuse, murky. They hovered in the background of his mind like ghosts, just waiting to jump out at him if he made the mistake of trying to sleep again.
He’d gone two nights without one, so had known he was in for it tonight and had fought sleep with a vengeance. But, as always, it had lured him under, wrapped its tentacles around him, and squeezed…
He was glad for a bright moon to light his way to the liquor cart. He knew the feel of the brandy decanter by heart and easily located a glass. The hard part was pouring one-handed in the dark. A few times he’d simply taken a bottle of whiskey to drink from directly. Even on his most desperate nights, though, he was loath to do so from the brandy decanter.
“I’d prefer the whiskey.”
“Holy shit!” Scott barely held on to the decanter as he spun around to the quiet voice coming from the darkness.
A chuckle. “My, your language, brother.”
“What the hell are you doing sitting here in the dark?” Scott hissed, having to grab for the crutch he’d lost hold of.
Johnny was at his side, holding his elbow to steady him, at the same time reaching for the decanter. “You sit. I’ll pour.” His brother guided him to the couch and eased him down, then settled the crutch quietly on the floor. He went back to the bar cart and presently returned with Scott’s brandy and the whiskey bottle.
“I think I’ve drunk from that bottle.” Scott admitted as Johnny tilted it toward his lips.
“Hey, if we were on the trail, we’d be sharing it. What’s a little spit between brothers?”
Scott chuckled as he leaned back and sipped his brandy. A few embers still glowed from the banked fire. He was tempted to ask Johnny to stoke it back to warmth but preferred the protective cloak of darkness. Huddling into the corner of the couch, he turned to the shadowy outline of his brother.
“So I ask again, what are you doing sitting here in the dark?”
A long silence led to a deep intake of air and slow exhale.
“You ain’t the only one with nightmares, brother.”
The admission stunned Scott, but then it kindled a lost memory of Johnny telling him he knew what it was like to have demons haunt your dreams. Several emotions flashed through him; the anger he now remembered feeling that night, fear over where this conversation could lead, sadness that this could be one of the few things he and his brother had in common.
He realized tonight was the first time Johnny had called him that.
“Do you… uh, want to tell me about the nightmare?” he asked, in good brotherly fashion.
“Nope. You wanna tell me about yours?”
A long, but not uncomfortable silence followed.
Abruptly, Johnny got up, grabbed the fireplace poker, and stabbed at the embers.
“It’s fucking freezing in here,” he muttered, as he added some kindling.
Within a few minutes, the fire had come back to life. Johnny stayed on the hearth, fiddling with the poker. Scott watched the light from the flames outline the contours of Johnny’s handsome features. He could see pain in his brother’s dark eyes.
“It’s crazy that we let these damn nightmares control us.” Scott was surprised to realize he’d spoken aloud. Johnny’s eyes flicked over to him, then away. “If it was a man tormenting us like this, we’d hunt him down, and take him out.”
That garnered a small smile from Johnny. “Yup. Call him out, invite him to dance.”
Scott sighed. “If only it was that easy.”
Johnny ran his thumb and forefinger along the poker, then rubbed them together to wipe off the soot.
“I tried that, you know,” Scott could barely hear the quiet words. “I tracked down the man who murdered my mother and who used to beat the crap outta me. It took me two years of practicing, and watching every gunfight, every shooting contest, until I knew I was good enough to kill him. Carmona laughed when I called him out.” Johnny’s voice trailed. “I thought the nightmares would stop then… but they only got worse. Carmona’s got a lot of friends in Hell who come to visit along with him, quite a few that I’ve put there personally.”
The realization that Johnny had watched his mother murdered and then had taken up the gun as a mere child brought a more searing chill to Scott’s bones. If only Johnny had known he could have come home to a caring and protective big brother.
“Are the dreams always the same?” Scott had several that recurred, most he could handle with a few deep breaths, an hour of pacing, and maybe a drink or two. But the ones about Danny…
“The worst ones are, I guess cuz in them I’m still a kid. And they make me think of Mama and how I wasn’t strong enough to protect her.”
“You were a child, Johnny, of course you couldn’t protect her against a grown man.”
“Well, there wasn’t anyone else around to do it. And boy, did I hate the old man for that. Then to find out Mama lied…” Johnny let his air out in a long exhale, then took a healthy swig of whiskey. “It really messed with my head. Now, being here with him, and him being so big and all, ordering me around. Christ, Scott, it’s like I’m that little kid again.”
Scott leaned forward. “I can talk to him…”
“Hell, no, Scott! Geez, that’s all I’d need is for him to know. He already looks at me like I’m something he stepped in out in the paddock.”
“That’s not what I meant, Johnny, not to tell him about the nightmares, but to get him to back off with the tune-calling. I know all the angst I’ve put him through has him on edge. He’s afraid to take it out on me, so he turns it on you.”
“Angst? What’s that mean?”
“Worry, pain, bullshit.” Scott swirled the brandy in his glass, holding it up to capture the light from the fire. “Since I’ve been home, I think I’ve been his worst nightmare; nasty, drunken, gone for days, ruining my reputation as well as his.”
“Is that because of the nightmares?” Johnny asked quietly.
Scott felt that familiar twist to his stomach. His impulse was to shut down, to storm away as he had in Modesto and numerous times before that. But this time was different. This time, he had a little brother who had opened up to him, and who deserved something in return.
“The reason behind the nightmares. What I did…” He breathed out, shuddered. “The friend I killed.”
There. He’d said it. Now Johnny would know what a despicable human being he was. The boy would probably leave. He deserved that, deserved to have everyone he’d been lying to, and pretending for, abandon him. The glass in his hand shook so badly, he lowered it to rest on his thigh.
The silence shrieked at him, pounded in his ears.
He had to fill it, had to let Johnny know the whole shameful truth.
“His name was Danny O’Leary. He was my big brother at Harvard.” He saw Johnny’s head lift, so explained before the question needed to be asked. “Upperclassmen were assigned as big brothers to incoming freshmen, to ease the transition, make sure we could find our way to classes, things like that. I started there the month I turned seventeen, so I was about as fresh as they came. Danny had his work cut out for him. I’d been away from Boston for seven years and had forgotten how elitist and cruel people from ‘old money’ could be. A backwoods cowboy from California was a pretty tempting target. Danny saved my ass a half dozen times in those first months and kept me from jumping on the next train back home. He even took me home with him over the Thanksgiving holiday, much to Grandfather’s chagrin. His parents were two of the warmest, most down to earth people I’d ever met. His little brother, Timmy, was a royal pain in the ass, playing tricks on us, following us everywhere, telling the stupidest jokes.”
“Bet that made you glad you didn’t have one.” Johnny murmured into the pause in the story.
Scott raised his eyes. “The opposite in fact. I knew I did have one…somewhere. It made me ache to have you home even more.”
Johnny bowed his head at the powerful proof of his brother’s caring.
“And Danny loved every minute of it. He’d laugh at every joke, play tricks right back on him. And, God, Timmy adored Danny. You could see it in his eyes. Even though he was eleven, he wasn’t the least bit embarrassed when Danny hugged him, or to cry when we went back at the end of break.”
Scott’s own throat constricted at the memory of the boy’s tears and hero worship of his big brother. It took a while for it to ease enough for him to continue.
“Luckily, I settled in not long after, made friends in my own year, and Danny just became someone I’d wave to when I saw him across the quad, or ask after his family if we were in the same line in the dining hall. He graduated that May. I made a point to tell his parents how much he’d helped me. Oh, and Timmy had grown about five inches in as many months, still telling dumb jokes to make Danny laugh, still following Danny around like a little puppy.”
He lost himself in the memory as it inevitably rolled into the horror of what happened next. A log breaking apart and tumbling down into the andirons snapped him back to the present. Johnny used the poker to corral a few embers that had scattered onto the hearth. He settled back quietly, giving Scott the option to say more or not.
Scott wasn’t sure he could. The cold sweat was back. He tossed back the remainder of the brandy and set the glass on the table. When the warmth of the liquor faded too quickly, he reached for the bottle of whiskey Johnny had left on the floor by the couch and took a health swig.
“Here’s to shared spit between brothers.” He joked, offering the bottle up to Johnny. Johnny accepted it wordlessly, took a pull, then handed it back.
Although there was never enough of it to help.
Running his fingers over the label, Scott stared into the fire.
“The next time I saw Danny was in the prison camp at Libby. I didn’t recognize him at first. He and his men had been captured months earlier. More than anything else, seeing the changes in him made it very clear I’d landed in Hell, and it scared the living shit out of me. As a captain, he was the ranking officer among the prisoners, and a natural leader. Once again, he took me under his wing and helped me survive, this time, quite literally.
“After a few months, I saw an opportunity for escape. The guards made the prisoners build them a barracks, guard shacks, latrines, every comfort we were denied. They decided they wanted a dining hall, the bastards. A nice cozy place for meals, while we starved. It was before the Union Army cut off the supply lines, so we had the materials. Danny let slip to the guards that he’d heard I had taken some Engineering classes at Harvard. He had, too, far more than I, but it was the start of winter and working under shelter would at least keep me and the men out of the icy rain for part of the day. I chose a spot near the back fence bordering the woods, ostensibly the only flat surface and the one furthest from the stench of the latrines. In reality, I had a plan for digging a tunnel under the platform that would open up into the woods.
“Danny was against it from the start. He was so convinced the prisoner exchanges would start right back up again and he thought the plan was way too dangerous. Turns out, he was right. Only two men made it out, the rest were cut down…” A long silence ensued as his mind retraced the horror of that night, the rifle fire, the screams, the gut-wrenching realization that he had just sent fourteen men to their deaths. An icy sweat instantly drenched him, his stomach roiled with nausea, and darkness closed in.
A quiet movement, and warm pressure against his shoulder. Johnny had moved to sit beside him.
He stuttered out a breath. “Danny… Danny took the blame. He didn’t even want us to do it, but he assumed the blame. And they killed him, Johnny, they tortured him… for days… until he died.” Thick ribbons of tears coursed down Scott’s cheeks. “And they let him hang there… until…”
He couldn’t finish, couldn’t bear to speak of the desecration of his big brother’s body as time wore on. He bowed his head, huge sobs wracking his body. A gentle arm snaked around his shoulder, drawing him closer.
Nothing was said.
The agony leached out of him as the minutes passed, until he was hollowed and reamed dry. He lifted the bottle he still clutched in contracted fingers, but was unable to swallow past his swollen throat. The sleeve of his bathrobe swiped away whiskey, tears and mucus all at once. A perfect example of how low he’d sunk, he thought.
“It should have been me,” he whispered. “I should have died with the men, or on that whipping post, or a hundred times over in that damn camp.” This time, the whiskey made a successful trip past his lips and into his queasy stomach. He didn’t relinquish the bottle to his brother, though. There already was not enough remaining to send him into the necessary oblivion. He pulled away from Johnny, curling into the corner of the couch. “So now you know what kind of a man your big brother is…if you can even call me a man for letting Danny die for my mistakes. And I didn’t even have the decency to write to his parents or go back to Boston to pay my respects…”
Johnny got up, went into the water closet, then shortly returned with a washing cloth and towel, which he handed to Scott for his face before returning to his seat on the hearth. “Is that why the nightmares got so bad after your grandfather visited?”
“How did you…? Oh, Father. He told you, right?”
“Yeah. Did your grandfather say something to you about not going to see Danny’s family?”
Scott leaned forward, wringing the towel between his hands. “No. I don’t think he made the connection that we might have been at Libby together, maybe never even knew that’s where Danny died. He didn’t associate with the O’Learys. Being Irish, they weren’t exactly from old money, not to mention he never forgave them for absconding with me that Thanksgiving.” He laid the towel across his knees, then folded the washcloth inside it, smoothing each corner with exquisite care. “In fact, that’s what triggered things. Murdoch invited Grandfather to stay through Thanksgiving, and Grandfather made a comment about Thanksgiving in Boston and it brought that weekend back… and the memory of Timmy.” Slender fingers stroked the towel’s surface in a repetitive rhythm. “The look in his eyes when Danny was around… the absolute adoration…” Scott sniffed and hung his head. “I took that all away from him.”
“Wasn’t you that did that, Boston.” Johnny said quietly.
“Don’t give me that bullshit about it being the guards or the damn war!” Scott raged. “It was my fool-assed plan, my cowardice in not admitting the escape plan was mine.” He stormed to his feet, jabbing a finger in Johnny’s direction. “I stood back and watched him die…no, not even just die, watched him suffer for days before he died… to protect me and I never said a fucking word!”
He was shouting now and suddenly heard Murdoch’s door open. He looked with panic at the stairway. “I can’t…”
Johnny scooted off the hearth. “I’ll go talk to him.”
Johnny took the stairs two at a time and intercepted Murdoch at the landing. The older man was wide-eyed with concern, ready to push past Johnny to check on Scott. Johnny blocked his path, a harrowing feat as he was once again a step below the towering man.
“He’s alright.” Johnny said quickly. “We’re just talking.”
“I hardly call what I’m hearing talking!” Murdoch’s voice was hushed but intense.
“Well, yeah, he is a bit riled. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Leastwise we ain’t throwing punches yet.”
Johnny sighed and kept his voice low. “Look, Doc Sam says he needs to talk, and that’s what we’re doin’. I don’t know if it’s the right way or not. But I think he needs to get it out, so it ain’t eating him inside so bad.”
Murdoch looked past Johnny toward the great room and Johnny could feel the paternal desire to go to his son. “I won’t let anything happen to him, Murdoch,” he said huskily. “You can trust me.”
The gaze that pinned him seemed to glow silver in the darkness. Johnny felt himself flush with its intensity, and waited for the blow that would send him tumbling backwards down the stairs. The massive hand rose, but then settled warmly on his shoulder.
“I know I can, Johnny.”
With a firm squeeze, Murdoch retreated back down the hallway and into his room.
Johnny stood for a moment, staring into the darkness, his head reeling from the quiet words. Blowing his air out, he descended the stairs, and stepped into the great room. Scott was standing in the shadows by the picture window, enough moonlight spilling through for Johnny to see the refilled brandy snifter in his hand. He passed the empty whiskey bottle on his way to the fireplace, crouched down, and stirred the dying flames.
Scott grunted. “Haven’t you heard enough sordid details for the night?”
Johnny poked at the fire and remained silent. He recognized the words of a man spoiling for a fight. He’d learned very early in his gunfighting career how to avoid getting drawn into one. He settled back on the hearth.
The dim firelight caught on Scott’s crutch, still laying on the floor by the couch. Johnny wondered how on earth Scott had gotten to the window without it, especially given all he’d drunk. Jeez, all he’d need was for Scott to fall and re-break a bone after he’d gone and promised Murdoch that he’d take care of him.
Johnny pushed himself up and crossed to the window. He perched on the edge of Murdoch’s massive mahogany desk.
“Getting close enough to catch me when I fall into a drunken stupor?”Scott snorted. “You’ll have to be patient. These days it takes a lot more than half a bottle of whiskey and a few snifters of brandy to accomplish that. In fact,” Scott tipped up the snifter to drain it, then held it out to Johnny. “If you would be so kind…”
Johnny accepted the glass but just held onto it.
“Aw, don’t tell me you’re gonna try to cut me off. I warn you, we will not have a good outcome over that!”
Johnny raised an eyebrow. “Are ya plannin’ to take a swing at me?”
“Maybe.” Scott tried to push himself away from the window frame, but the weight of the casts knocked him off-balance, and right back into it. He muttered a curse, and tried again. Johnny’s arm shot out to steady him, afraid a waver in the wrong direction could send Scott crashing through the window.
Scott tried to pull away, but he held on firmly, setting the empty glass on the desk so he could maneuver himself to Scott’s other side to act as the missing crutch. “I’ll make a deal with ya. You come back over to sit down and I’ll pour you one last drink for the night.” Johnny propelled him across the floor and deposited him onto the couch.
“One more is not going to do it.” Scott complained.
Johnny moved back to the sideboard and refilled Scott’s glass. “Aiming for unconsciousness are you?”
Johnny handed Scott the glass and settled on the other end of the couch, turned sideways to face his brother. “I didn’t like it too much the last time you were unconscious,” he said softly.
“Well, it felt pretty fine on my end. Sure better than this hell.”
Johnny traced a finger along a seam on the back of the couch.
“Do you think Danny would want you to feel this way about what happened?”
“Danny? No. But Timmy…and their parents… they would damn me every day for the rest of their lives over allowing Danny to suffer and die in my place.” Scott said with disgust.
“Maybe… or maybe they would be proud to know what Danny did for you and the other prisoners. I bet they wouldn’t be surprised either; it sounds like he was a pretty special guy.”
“He was.” Scott’s voice was whisper-soft.
Johnny let the silence float between them for a while before he ventured, “How did you get those whip scars on your back?”
Scott opened his mouth in shock at the brazenness of the question. He closed it just as quickly.
Johnny pushed further. “I bet you pissed in the guards’ soup. Or maybe you left a board un-nailed in the latrine and one of the bastards fell in.”
Scott grunted a laugh. “Nothing quite so inventive nor retaliatory.”
Johnny made a “so what was it?” gesture with his hand.
“We were unloading a wagon of supplies and one of the men dropped a case of wine and two of the bottles broke.”
“Oh, yeah, I can see them not being happy about that. What was the man’s name?”
“No, the one who dropped the case.”
“Billy, Billy Westfall, a red-headed kid from Delaware. I wasn’t convinced he was even eighteen, he was all hands and feet, constantly tripping over himself, hitting his fingers instead of nails with the hammer.”
“He make it out okay?”
“Yes, in fact, I remember seeing him stumble getting into one of the wagons when they liberated us.” A small smile touched Scott’s lips. “I told McKay, one of the sargeants, to keep an eye on him or, with his luck, he’d survived the prison, only to die falling out of the wagon onto his head.”
Johnny leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “That Billy Westfall better never show his face around me unless he wants a mouthful of my fist!”
“What?” Scott looked at Johnny in shock. “Because he was a klutzy kid?”
Johnny’s eyes met his brother’s. “Because he let my brother take the punishment for something he did.”
“That’s absurd, Johnny, I was the ranking officer and… you bastard.”
Johnny’s gaze did not waver under Scott’s furor.
“It’s not the same thing!” Scott’s back was rigid, the brandy sloshing in the glass as he gestured angrily with it.
“Why, because you didn’t die?”
“No, dammit, because he was a kid, it was a stupid accident. It was my responsibility…” Scott’s voice trailed, but he still seethed.
“Okay.” Johnny got up to poke down the fire a bit, hoping his brother’s ire might tamp down as well. When he sat back on the hearth a few moments later, there was only the dimmest light coming from the embers. “I’m proud of you, brother.”
“Proud of me? You’ve got to be kidding. I got a man killed, I’m bawling like a baby, afraid to go to sleep.”
Johnny leaned forward, his forearms on his knees. “Scott, you spared Billy a horrible beating and probably saved his life. Instead, you suffered the consequences, and knowing what things were probably like then, I bet you almost died. You did it because you felt it was your responsibility, and I’m proud of my big brother for making that hard choice.” He rubbed his still sore left wrist with his thumb. “And I’d bet anything that’s how Timmy would feel if he knew Danny had died protecting his men.”
Scott shook his head adamantly. “You don’t know… it’s not the same. Billy didn’t choose to drop the wine. I chose to build that tunnel despite Danny’s protests.”
“Because you were trying to save those men…”
“But they all died!”
“Not all of them. Two men survived and went home to their families. And how many of the others would have died anyway in the months before you were set free? Your plan gave them hope, made their last days slightly less horrific, and what’s to say it wasn’t the two men who did escape who eventually helped free the rest of you?”
“You know that for sure?”
“Well, no, but… don’t make me into something I’m not.” Scott said disgustedly.
“I won’t, if you won’t.” At Scott’s confused look, Johnny sighed. “You’re not a coward or responsible for what happened to Danny, Scott. You’re turning all the hate and fury you should be feeling about what the guards did to Danny against yourself. It doesn’t belong there. Stop letting them torture you, they don’t deserve that kind of power.”
“But aren’t you doing the same thing with Carmona?” Scott shot back. ”Letting him rule your nightmares, hell, rule your life. It’s why you’re a gunfighter, right?”
Johnny took the blow with a quiet intake of air. It took a few beats before he could find his voice.
“Yeah. Kinda the pot calling the kettle black, ain’t it?” He puffed out his cheeks. “But I didn’t know I had other options back then. You have a father and sister who love you.” Johnny ducked his head. “And maybe even a little brother who kinda likes having you around.”
“Johnny, I’m sorry. My comment was uncalled for.” Scott sounded contrite.
“Nah. You ain’t gotta apologize for telling the truth. I admit I’ve got some rethinking to do myself.”Johnny rubbed his face. “But it ain’t gonna be tonight. I’m done in.” He got up, spread the dying embers out, and set the iron fireshield across the hearth. Then he crossed to Scott and held out a hand as he reached for the crutch. “I’m putting you to bed, then myself, before the old man comes down and boots us both out into the cold for drinking up all his liquor.” He grunted as he hauled Scott to his feet. “And the next time we have one of these middle of the night chats, there damn well better be tequila on that liquor cart.”
It didn’t happen overnight, or even in a week, but gradually both the intensity and frequency of Scott’s nightmares began to ease. He finally felt able to send a long-overdue letter to Danny’s family, and although he agonized over what their reactions would be, he felt lighter to have shared what Danny’s sacrifice meant to him. Occasionally, he even allowed himself to truly “hear” some of the things Johnny said to him that night. Certainly, knowing his brother still loved, respected, and was proud of him went a long way toward soothing his war-shattered heart.
Instead of dwelling on a past he couldn’t control, he now found himself concentrating on his future, and especially on how to keep Johnny in it, and at Lancer.
The young man was visibly restless, and surprisingly uneasy around their father. Murdoch might be a stern taskmaster and rule setter, but he was not a violent man. Yet, Scott had noticed that Johnny would not stand within arm’s reach of Murdoch, even though he was fine around Bert Chaffee, the grumbling smithy who was probably the only man in the region who was taller, broader, and bellowed louder than Murdoch.
Scott couldn’t remember knowing anyone who could appear to relax as bonelessly as Johnny did, whether in the saddle, talking with the hands, or taking a siesta after lunch on a work crew. At the same time, his senses were constantly on alert. He was always the first to pick up an approaching rider, to sense anxiety in the horses, to notice a change in the sounds around them.
Yet, around Murdoch, Johnny fidgeted, shied back, and fell silent. Except when the big man roared. When Murdoch commanded, Johnny stood firm and glared back. The Madrid mask would slide in place in an instant, and Scott would sadly watch his easy-going and good humored brother disappear. It terrified him. He knew Johnny Madrid saw no place for himself at Lancer.
Even worse, Madrid had been called on twice in recent days, first when a new hire had gotten rough with one of the horses, and then when a couple drifters had tried to pick a fight with Rob Tetler’s boy when he beat them fair and square at poker. The change that came over his brother at those times was mesmerizing.
First, there was the eerily calm —yet almost feral— look that chilled Johnny’s azure eyes, making it impossible to look away. Then, that smile. Confident, intimidating, as if he was already inside your head and knew what you were going to do before you knew yourself. Maybe that’s how his gun was out and pointed at the taller drifter’s chest before the man’s hand had even fully closed on his own gun.
“I’d rethink that real fast, mister.” The words were soft, soothing, although the intent behind them was anything but. Then, five minutes later, when the threat was over, Johnny was joking with the Tetler kid as if nothing had happened.
Scott was well aware that he couldn’t keep Johnny at Lancer without serious help from Murdoch. Johnny needed to feel he was truly part of the family, not just a hired hand, especially now that Scott was finally back on an even keel, both physically and mentally.
Murdoch, for his part, seemed just as unsure around Johnny. While he was quick to throw a companionable arm over Scott’s shoulders, or compliment him on a job well done, he was stiff and curt with Johnny. If there was a wrong way to take something Johnny said, Murdoch would find it and cut off any discussion with a reminder of who called the tune at Lancer. Scott was beginning to hate that phrase.
And yet, there were moments when Scott would catch their father watching Johnny with fatherly concern, or even perhaps, a longing to reach out to this long lost son. In turn, Scott would sometimes be deep in a conversation with Murdoch about an idea for the ranch, and glance at Johnny, and he could swear Johnny’s eyes held the same look, as if the boy was aching for Murdoch to engage with him that way. If only Scott could find a way to get them to take the risk of moving closer to each other, instead of always dancing away. He thought about the day’s happenings and wondered if there was an opportunity there.
Cipriano and Walt had been bemoaning the way the southwest pastures flooded every spring, turning the otherwise prime grazing acres into a massive mud bog. Johnny had suggested digging a trench a half acre beyond the fence line and lining it with river stone in an effort to divert the mountain run-off along the natural curve of hills toward Red Rock Gulch. It would be a massive project, taking weeks of upfront labor, but, if successful, would not only save dozens of cattle from the bog but also open up several dozen acres of otherwise unusable graze. Scott thought it made tremendous sense, and used what he’d learned about geology, engineering, and drafting at Harvard to map out a plan. Murdoch had ridden out to the site just as they were working out a final hurdle and viewed Scott’s hastily drafted outline with a furrowed brow.
“Just gathering the river stone will take weeks we don’t have. The river is already running fast after the rain we had last week. It’ll be too dangerous to ask the men to harvest stone there.”
Scott shifted his weight off his right leg, resting his hip on the back of the wagon. The casts had blessedly been off for a week now and his arm was no worse for the wear. But his right thigh muscle had been deeply cut in the fall, and although it was healed over, it was weak, putting an extra burden on his lower leg which ached unbearably if he was on it for more than a few minutes at a time. He still couldn’t ride, and hated being relegated to the wagon. But, he hadn’t let it keep him from working.
“Maybe we could dig the trenches this season and wait to line them until the river falls back in the summer. It obviously won’t help much, if at all, this spring, but would give us a head start for next year.”
They brainstormed ideas for nearly an hour until Murdoch, still unconvinced, called a halt for the day. They gathered the remaining tools and supplies and loaded the wagon. Murdoch rode ahead with Cipriano to discuss his concern about the fire that had destroyed a large swatch of feed corn earlier in the week. Tony, Jose, and Jess decided to ride into town for the evening. Scott watched with jealousy as Jess guided Remmie toward Green River. He was glad his horse was getting exercise, but he was frustrated to not be the one to provide it.
“Don’t feel obligated to hang back with me, Johnny,” he offered as Johnny guided Diablo to walk beside the wagon. “I know you’re dying for a run and so is Diablo.”
“Nah, I’m giving him one more day at an easy pace. I can tell he ain’t a hundred percent after he picked up that stone.”
Scott laughed and shook his head affectionately at his brother. “If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you two were twins, separated at birth. I’ve never seen a man and a horse so attuned to each other. I bet if I pinched you, Diablo would be the one to grunt in pain.”
“No, you’d be the one grunting in pain, brother.” Johnny laughed, then sobered. “Speaking of pain, that leg is still giving you a bad time, ain’t it?”
“It’s more annoying than painful. If I have to ride around in this damn wagon much longer, I’ll need Teresa to make me a bench cushion.”
“Now, that I’d like to see!” Johnny hooted. “A big fluffy one with flowers. The men would have a time with you then. Nobody would get any work done, laughing so hard.”
Scott chuckled goodnaturedly, “Yes, I can see that it would be a hard thing to live down.”
The conversation gradually drifted back to the mud bog and the dilemma of how to line the trenches.
“Maybe we could harvest rock from that cliff that sheared off by South Mesa,” Johnny suggested, “There’s plenty of loose shale and stones around the base that would be pretty easy to get at. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about the river.”
Scott halted the wagon. “Johnny, that’s a brilliant idea! It’s just the answer we needed! Come on, let’s go talk to Murdoch.”
By the end of supper, even Murdoch was getting excited about the plan. He and Scott pored over Scott’s drawings, developing a timeline and list of needed supplies. As they set the paperwork aside to enjoy a final glass of brandy together, Scott realized that Johnny hadn’t come back in from checking on the horses that were to be delivered to the army at the end of the week. He walked over to the dining room window that looked out on the paddocks. It was no surprise to see Johnny working with the grulla mare.
“Whichever soldier gets that mare is going to be one lucky man,” Scott observed. He felt his father come up behind him.
“He’s certainly done a fine job breaking and training those horses.” Murdoch agreed. “I just wish he’d put the same focus into the cattle on the ranch.”
As always, with Johnny, there has to be a criticism tied to any compliment.
“You do know this whole water diversion plan is his, right?”
Murdoch reacted with surprise. “I thought it was yours. You drew up the plans and led the discussion on it…”
“…based on his ideas, Father. He even came up with the solution of using the stones from the rock slide.”
Murdoch’s brows lifted. “But he didn’t say more than two sentences about it and left it to you and me to work out the details.”
Scott turned to face his father, leaning against the sill to take the weight off his right leg. “Would you have been as open to the idea if you’d known it was his?”
The question was asked quietly, but made Murdoch’s head snap up. “Of course I would have. A good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from.”
“No matter where it comes from?” Scott echoed softly. He knew he was treading on unstable ground, but felt his brother’s future at the ranch was dependent upon helping their father see Johnny as more than a gunfighter or hired hand.
“I just meant that I’ve always been open to listening to ideas the men have. They work the land every day and often see solutions we might miss.”
“But Johnny doesn’t. He’s worked a very different job for most of his life.”
“You don’t need to remind me of that, Scott!” Murdoch said with disgust.
“I know I don’t. In fact, I can tell you think about it every time you look at him. I’m sure he sees it, too. The problem is, he’s trying with everything he has to fit in here, to follow your rules, and focus on our priorities for the ranch. But all you see is the gunfighter, and it closes you off to him. I can guarantee you that if you were there when Johnny first suggested the water diversion, you would have shut him down. You did it with the mare, with Jacobs, and with the delivery schedule for the army. It’s as if you’re trying to prove he’s not good at anything but gunfighting.”
“That’s not true, Scott,” Murdoch retorted, “I just got done saying what an exceptional job he’s done with the horses.”
“But you canceled it out by saying you wish he’d focus more on the ranch. You’re so hard on him, much harder than with any of the men or with me.”
“If he’s going to become a partner in this ranch, he’s got a lot to learn. Just because he’s the boss’s son, doesn’t mean he gets a free ride.”
“The boss’s son, Father, or your son?”
“What? I don’t understand what you mean.” Murdoch crossed his arms in frustration.
“I mean,” Scott mirrored the action, crossing his own arms. “You don’t call him ‘son’, you don’t introduce him as your son, and you don’t talk to him like a father to a son, just like a boss to a hired hand.”
“Scott, it’s not easy,” Murdoch paced over to the mantel, then back a few steps toward the table. “He’s practically a grown man. You were a child when you came home. Even then, it was hard for us in the beginning. It took a long time before the hatred over me taking you away from your grandfather left your eyes. He’s been gone seventeen years.”
Scott picked up on Murdoch’s comment. “I never hated you.”
Murdoch’s smile was sad. “I guess you’ve forgotten how many times you screamed at me, ‘I hate you! I want to go home to Boston!’”
Scott bowed his head. He had forgotten.
“I understood your anger, Scott, and felt it well-deserved. Yet, I always knew you were safe and well-cared-for with Harlan.” Murdoch ran his hand along the braided trim of the drape. “But my inability to keep Johnny’s mother happy stole his childhood away from him, and put him through years of hunger and abuse. I can’t make that up to him!” The anguish in his father’s words was clear.
“I don’t believe Johnny expects you to, sir. He’s just looking for some type of opening to connect with you now, to feel you accept him, despite his past.”
“He’s so angry with me. I’m afraid he’s going to see any attempt at fathering on my part as too little, too late.”
“You survived it with me.” Scott said with a wry smile.
“Barely.” Murdoch smiled in return. The smile drifted away as he looked out at Johnny in the paddock. Scott saw it replaced with that look of longing.
“I think you’ll find that if you approach him as a father wanting to know his son, and don’t let the Lancer Patron get in the way, he’ll meet you halfway. But more, Father, I’m afraid if you don’t do that soon, he’s going to leave.”
“Why would he go back to that life when he has a future here?”
“Does he know he has a future here?” Scott caught his father’s gaze.
“He’s my son. It’s his birthright!”
“From what I understand from Cipriano, that’s not how it’s viewed in Mexico, everything goes to the eldest son.”
“We aren’t in Mexico! And what is Cipriano doing talking to you about something as private as this?” Murdoch raged.
Scott raised his hands in a placating gesture. “It wasn’t about us. We were talking about his brother’s family. The eldest apparently is a ne’er do well who would quickly squander what little their small spread is worth, while the younger son has been the one to work the land everyday. But tradition is tradition, and Cip fears the older son will inherit everything. I can’t imagine Johnny thinks anything would be different here, nor do I think he expects you to offer him a partnership…if that is indeed your intent.”
The topic of the partnership agreement was still a sensitive topic between Scott and Murdoch. Scott’s nineteenth year had been a restless one for him. He’d struggled at Harvard, under intense pressure from his Grandfather to remain in Boston after graduation to take his rightful place as a junior partner at Garrett Enterprises. At the same time, Murdoch was pushing Scott to sign a fifty-fifty partnership agreement for Lancer, believing Johnny was lost to them, and hoping Scott would find reason to return to California. Scott refused to sign for more than a third of Lancer and took an extended leave from school, to both men’s chagrin, in a fruitless quest to search for his brother. The war in Mexico was at its height, which prevented him from getting farther than distributing his posters. The conflict between the northern and southern states was ramping up sharply. Scott felt called to fight to abolish slavery and didn’t want to wait until he graduated in two years to do so. The only thing Murdoch and Harlan agreed upon was a desire to keep Scott out of the conflict. If he returned to Harvard, and stayed until he graduated –when they both fully expected the war would be over– Harlan agreed to stop pushing for Scott to become a partner, and Murdoch agreed to hold out a third of Lancer for Johnny. The partnership papers were signed just before Scott returned to Harvard.
Unbeknownst to either man, Scott immediately applied for accelerated programming to graduate a year early. He announced his graduation and enlistment to his father and grandfather in separate letters mailed on his way to his Calvary assignment in Virginia. Both men were furious and worried, even more so when they heard Scott had been taken prisoner. He’d come home a broken, out of control young man. It was only the spark of connecting with his little brother that had saved him from a dangerous downward spiral.
“You know very well that I’ve been holding a third of Lancer for him.” Anger over Scott’s manipulation was clear in Murdoch’s voice. “But we’ve only known him for a few weeks. It would be premature to bring it up to him.”
“If it’s his birthright, it’s his birthright, Father,” Scott said quietly. “He has a right to know about it. To know you cared enough about him to save it for him.”
“I didn’t.” Murdoch said so softly, Scott almost didn’t hear.
“Yes, you did. Maybe with some persuasion…”
“I believe the word is extortion…”
Scott smiled, feeling for his father’s confusion, hesitance, and fear. “Johnny gave me a good talking to about the danger of living in the past, of letting something that can’t be undone destroy my present and future. Don’t make that same mistake, Father. You can’t rewrite his childhood, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still your son who needs his father.” He followed Murdoch’s gaze to where Johnny was leading the mare into the barn. “Go talk to him.”
Murdoch Lancer could remember few times he’d felt as nervous as he did as he approached Johnny in the barn. He’d seen Johnny’s hand already on his gun as he’d stepped inside, but just as quickly the hand dropped away as he was recognized. Still, tension rippled across the boy’s shoulders.
Murdoch had to roll his own as he moved to lean against the barn wall. “She’s a beautiful animal, and you’ve done a fine job training her.”
Johnny seemed to be bracing for the ‘but’. When it didn’t come, he shifted self-consciously, stroking her neck. “She’s a special one, for sure.”
Silence blossomed between them. Murdoch tried to fill it with small talk about the delivery to the army. The tension seemed to double.
“Scott told me it was your idea to dig and line the trenches. Where did you come up with it?”
The sapphire eyes glared. “Don’t worry, I didn’t just pull it out of my ass. I saw it done at a place I worked down south.”
Murdoch resisted the urge to react to Johnny’s tone and language. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I think it’s going to solve the problem, and I’m grateful. The mud bog has vexed me since I bought this place.”
Johnny searched his face, seemed able to read his sincerity, and the tension in the boy’s expression eased slightly. “Hauling beeves outta mud is right behind branding and castrating as my least favorite thing to do, so I told myself to remember that trick for the future.”
Murdoch smiled. “I’m with you on that. I’d rather ride drag on a drive than play tug-of-war with a steer in a bog.” Johnny smiled, and Murdoch felt his heart lift. “So I appreciate you sharing your experience with us.”
Johnny gave a curt nod, turning back to brushing the mare. Murdoch cocked his head in her direction, “Did you name her?”
Johnny scuffed his boot in the hay, his head bowed. “Stormy.”
“Good name. She looks like a thundercloud and can surely kick up a whirlwind.” Murdoch reached over to scratch her withers.
Johnny ran his fingers through her coarse black mane. “I’m going to miss her. Even though she’s possessed by the devil sometimes.” His gentle hands moved to stroke the mare’s muzzle, the last words spoken to her in a soft, teasing tone.
For the first time, Murdoch didn’t see a gunfighter’s hands. He saw hands that could soothe a skittish mare, confidently rope a steer, or comfort a pain-wracked brother. His son’s hands. Murdoch swallowed tightly. “Maybe not. We could keep her…”
Johnny looked at him sharply.
“Assuming, of course, that you’re planning to stay to work with her. While we’re certainly not ready to start a horse breeding program, I do agree she’d make some pretty foals and I’m sure we can find a willing stallion to sire…”
“But she’s promised to the army.”
“Not her specifically. We promised twelve horses. Red isn’t the best cow pony. He might well do better as an officer’s mount. And now that Andy’s moved on, it won’t break anyone’s heart to see Red go.”
“Are you sure?”
Murdoch ached at the child-like hope in Johnny’s eyes. “If you’re planning to stay on, that is.”
Immediately, the tension returned to Johnny’s body. Murdoch stepped into the stall, grimacing internally as Johnny reflexively took a step back. “I’d like you to stay, son.”
Johnny’s eyes widened at the endearment, and he retreated another step. Murdoch stopped where he was, not wanting to overwhelm the boy. “I know we have a lot of time to make up for, and I haven’t done a great job so far of making you feel welcomed. But I hope you’ll give me a chance…us a chance, as I think you know how much Scott wants you to stay, too.”
The mask fell across Johnny’s face. “I’m a gunfighter.”
“Yes, and a very skilled one at that.” Murdoch said quietly, “But you’re also a son and a brother, and part of Lancer. We want you to come home.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking, old man. People might come gunning for me. My past ain’t gonna just disappear.”
“No, it won’t. Scott’s past didn’t disappear either, but you’ve started to help him learn to move forward from it. You’ve given me back my eldest son, and I’ll be forever grateful. Now, I just need my younger son back.”
Murdoch watched a war play out in Johnny’s dark eyes. How could he have not seen the boy’s need before?
“It ain’t gonna be easy.”
“In my experience, son, little that matters is. Did Scott say his homecoming was smooth?” Murdoch asked wryly.
“Not exactly,” A return smile touched Johnny’s lips. “But if you think I’m ever coming out to the barn for anything but taking care of a horse, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Murdoch suppressed a second grin at the bravado in the boy’s challenge. “I can agree to that. Let’s go in and tell your brother about the Stormy and Red swap. He’s going to have to change that contract as I suspect even an army officer will be able to tell Red isn’t a mare.” Murdoch slung an arm around Johnny’s shoulder and felt his heart soar when the boy didn’t pull away.
Inside the hacienda, Scott had been watching the closed barn door with bated breath, half expecting at any minute to see the door flung open and Johnny galloping Diablo off into the dusk. When the door opened and the two men stepped out, Murdoch’s arm around Johnny’s shoulders and both of them laughing, Scott had to blink twice. He watched in silent amazement as they crossed the yard, then closed his eyes in silent prayer.
It looked like they were finally getting what they all wanted: Johnny Madrid Lancer had finally come home.
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