Word Count 9,230
A Tag for The High Riders
Scott carried his brother over his shoulder into the hacienda and up the stairs to his bedroom, followed closely by their father and Teresa.
“Get the bandages and supplies,” Murdoch barked over his own shoulder.
Without a word the girl dashed off toward the kitchen.
Once in the hallway, Scott paused while Murdoch went past him and opened the bedroom door. Scott carefully leaned over to deposit his burden onto the bed. As soon as Johnny registered the change in direction, however, he snapped awake, jerked up to a sitting position, and reached for his gun. Scott put a restraining hand on his right arm while still keeping the other on Johnny’s shoulder to keep him from falling over.
“Take it easy,” he soothed the disoriented man. “You’ve been shot. You’re in the house now.”
Johnny looked at him for a second, then nodded understanding. Scott removed his hands and stepped back with a small smile.
“I’m alright,” Johnny told them, sitting up a little straighter. “I’m fine.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “And on what do you base this medical assessment?”
Johnny returned a small smile of his own. “Arms and legs are workin’. Not bleedin’ to death.”
Murdoch shook his head at that and came over to the bed. “You might not be bleeding to death, but you are bleeding. Let’s get your jacket and shirt off and see what the damage is.”
Johnny cooperated with taking his jacket off, but only raised his shirt up.
Murdoch frowned at him. “You need to take off this bloody shirt.”
“I can tell where I’m hit,” Johnny snapped. “Don’t need stripped to reach it.”
“The shirt is a mess, John.”
“The only one I got left. The last time I saw my other one it smelled like smoke
“You can’t….” Murdoch began angrily.
Scott interrupted at that point before it went any further. “I can loan you a shirt until yours are clean and mended.”
Johnny looked at him skeptically. “ No ruffles.”
Scott looked at the embroidery running down the front of the one he was currently wearing, and wondered where to draw the line between fancy and …fancy. “No ruffles,” was all he said.
Teresa came in with a basket full of medical supplies. “Here it is. I’ll be back with not water in a minute. And Cipriano wants to see you,” she informed her guardian, before hurrying back out and down the back stairs.
“I’ll see what he wants, sir,” Scott volunteered and disappeared, leaving the two of them alone.
Murdoch helped him out of the shirt in silence. He then took a pad of bandage material from the basket and held it onto the wound in his son’s back for a few minutes.
Johnny shifted a little under the pressure. “You got it figured what you think of me yet?”
“I… When I saw you fall…” he stopped abruptly.
“What?” Johnny snapped again at the unfinished statement.
“I didn’t understand…If you had told us what you were doing…”
Johnny stiffened in anger. “Like Scott did?”
The blond returned with the promised shirt just in time to hear the words. “Like Scott did what?”
“Explained your plan. It seems to be okay that you didn’t, but not okay that I didn’t.”
Scott and Murdoch exchanged a look over Johnny’s head at that. They couldn’t argue with the point. Scott at least had the decency to look down in concession. But then he looked back up at his brother.
“You seemed to know we would be here to spring your trap,” he pointed out.
Johnny smiled. “Why else would you need Cipriano’s pass?”
Scott grinned back. “Couldn’t you think of some way to bring them in other than using yourself as live bait?”
Teresa came in with the hot water and towels and Johnny smiled his thanks at her before answering Scott. “Wasn’t my first choice. But ol’ Day could’ve stayed out of reach forever unless he was pissed enough to do something real stupid.” He paused. “He’s dead, ain’t he?”
“Yes,” Scott answered succinctly and turned to Murdoch. “Cipriano said the count is three dead and, counting our bait here, four wounded. I took the liberty of telling him to send for a doctor. He said there is one in Spanish Wells?”
“Yes,” his father told him. “Sam Jenkins. He will have to decide whether this bullet needs to come out. But I at least need to clean and bandage it. This will hurt, I’m afraid.”
Johnny gave a quiet sigh. “Ain’t my first bullet hole. Just get it done.”
Scott watched for a moment as Murdoch set about the task. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
Johnny frowned at him in puzzlement. “Friend?”
“Pardee. You obviously knew him rather well.”
“Don’t mean…” Johnny flinched, despite how carefully his father was working. “…we were friends. Gunhawks might ride together, but it’s just a job.”
Now Scott frowned. “Gunhawk?”
Johnny looked at Scott and Teresa, then over his shoulder at Murdoch. “You know, don’t you?”
Murdoch grimaced, but kept working. “Yes, I know. The Pinkertons were quite thorough in their reports.”
Johnny gave a snort. “I bet they were.”
Scott crossed his arms in annoyance. “Know what?”
“I’m a gunfighter, Scott. A pistolero. My name is Johnny Madrid and I’ve been living by my gun for a long time.”
Scott blinked at the casual tone as he delivered this news. “A long time? You’re what, at least three or so years younger than me? When did you start? Age twelve?”
Murdoch had finished cleaning the wound and was wrapping a wide bandage around Johnny’s torso. “Your name is Johnny Lancer,” he all but growled.
Johnny looked back at him again. “That another order?” His father tied off the bandage, but didn’t reply. “Look you got my arms and legs and guts…and almost a whole lot more. What do you want?”
Murdoch came around in front of him. “My son,” he said quietly.
They looked at each other seriously for a moment.
“What if that ain’t me?” Johnny asked, just as softly.
Johnny scoffed again. “You got me out of in front of a firing squad and waved a thousand dollars under my nose. Of course I came!”
Teresa’s eyes went wide. “A firing squad?”
Johnny sighed and glanced a little apologetically at Murdoch. “Got caught up in a little revolution in Mexico. The government wasn’t too happy with us. “
Her eyes stayed wide. “You mean you were really…and they were…?”
“I was,” he admitted. “And they tried. Thirty seconds later and Boston here would’ve had half a ranch.”
He may have been trying for a bit of humor with the comment, but only silence followed it.
Finally Scott said, “It appears you have had quite the interesting life, Little Brother.”
“Perhaps a little less interesting would be healthier,” Murdoch commented.
Johnny was ready to argue that point. “Day was your enemy this time…not mine.”
Murdoch paused, “Yes. Yes he was,” he had to admit. “And…I thank you both. It wouldn’t …” He straightened up and changed the subject. “You should rest until the doctor gets here,” he told Johnny. “I’m going to go see what the damage outside is.” Without another word, he left with as much rigid dignity as his cane and limp would allow.
Scott and Johnny looked at each other. Teresa shrugged.
“He’s…he’s a really good man. When you get to know him,” she told them.
Scott seemed amused. “Well, he did thank us.”
Johnny blew out his breath and scooted up onto the bed, leaning against the headboard. “Reckon I’ll get on with that restin’ .”
“Do you want anything?” Teresa asked.
She frowned. “I was thinking water or food.”
Johnny grinned at her. “No. I’m fine.”
Scott shook his head. “Fine. Right. Well, Teresa, let’s let Mr. Fine, here relax. We’ll check on you later. Here.” He handed over the shirt. “Do you need help?”
“No. I can do it.”
Scott smirked a little. “Where have I heard that before?”
Johnny smiled back then closed his eyes as they left.
He jerked awake, not knowing how long he had been dozing. He stretched carefully, assessing his injury. It hurt, no doubt about that. In fact, he had stiffened up quite a bit and was kinda achy all over. Probably bruised some ribs in the fall. Not to mention banging his head on that hard Lancer ground. He shook it a little to clear the fuzziness and immediately regretted the movement.
Hearing voices outside, he swung his legs off the bed and stood shakily. Making his way over to the window, he sat on the arm of a chair there and looked out over the former battleground. He saw Scott standing near a wagon that was pretty much filled with bodies. From the numbers, it had to be the high riders, yet the hands were laying them in with more respect than he would have expected.
From Scott’s body language and arm motions, he must be directing the hands. Well, well, looks like Murdoch’s tin soldier was doing some tune callin’ of his own. Johnny felt oddly grateful for the dignity shown the fallen enemy.
A sound caught his attention. A sound he hated more than almost any other. A horse in distress. A panicked, pained cry…and then the shot. His eyes shut in sorrow, then snapped open in terror. He scanned the area…and breathed again when he saw his palomino trotting safely around the corral.
He turned and saw Murdoch in the doorway. Filling up the doorway he mused.
“I didn’t expect you to be up.”
Instead of answering, Johnny nodded out the window. “Looks like Boston’s got everything under control out there.”
Murdoch nodded. “He was an officer.”
“So I’ve heard” Johnny smirked. “A boy to be proud of, eh?”
There was a long pause as if Murdoch was trying to come up with an equivalent compliment for his second son. Finally, he said, “I came to see if you needed anything. Teresa will be up with lunch in a little while.”
“I don’t need anything.” he told his father, wondering how often they were going to ask him that. Murdoch continued to stand there, looking at him with an expression he couldn’t begin to decipher. “Something else you wanted?”
“Is this room alright?”
Johnny blinked in surprise at the unexpected question. “This room? Yeah, sure. Why?”
“It…it was yours. Different bed of course.” He looked around at the room. “I spent many nights in here…” He shook his head and started to go.
“Hey, Murd…” Johnny started to jump up, yelped in pain and lost his balance.
Murdoch grabbed his arm to steady him and guided him to the bed. “ Take it easy. You’ve still got a bullet in your back, remember?”
Johnny grinned around the pain. “Ain’t likely to forget.”
Murdoch stood back and watched him sit gingerly on the side of the bed. “Okay?”
Johnny merely nodded in answer.
“What was it you wanted?”
Johnny shrugged and shook his head. With a sigh of frustration, Murdoch started again to leave.
“Did…” Johnny took a breath. “… did she really…I mean…in the middle of the night?”
Murdoch fortified himself with a breath as well. “I thought you didn’t believe me.”
“Yeah, well,” Johnny looked down. “Not much here is like she said.”
“I see. In all fairness, it was a lot different twenty years ago.” He looked at Johnny’s bowed head. “I didn’t throw you out, Son. You or her.”
Johnny’s head came up. “Something made her leave.”
“It wasn’t me.”
Johnny tried to imagine his fiery mama with this cold man. More than why she left, he wondered why she had come in the first place. “You sure about that?”
Murdoch’s face hardened in angry self defense.
Teresa entered the room just then carrying the promised food. “Johnny, here’s some lunch”, she announced.
He smiled openly at her. “Thanks. Not real hungry, but I reckon I could eat a bite.”
He looked back up at Murdoch and they locked eyes for a moment. Without a word, the big man walked out.
Teresa watched him leave. “Is everything okay?”
Johnny glanced at the door. “A good man, huh?”
“Yes. He is.” She told him emphatically. “Johnny, I know he’s your father, not mine, but he’s all I’ve got.”
Instead of commenting, Johnny looked at the tray. “You expect me to eat all this!”
“No. Some of it’s for me,” she explained. “I thought you could use some company up here.”
She pulled a small table over to the bed and set the tray on it. Then she pulled the chair Johnny had recently vacated up to it and sat. They ate in silence for a few minutes.
“The ol’ man said this was my room,” he said more casually than he felt about it.
“His name is Murdoch…But, yes, he told me.” She smiled. “I guess you and me are the only two that were born here in this house.”
“Oh? Where was Scott born? In Boston?”
Teresa shook her head. “Somewhere between here and there. I don’t know the whole story….”
Late that evening, Scott sat with Murdoch and Teresa in the Great Room, waiting. He rolled a empty glass around in his hands, wondering at his concern for the confusing man upstairs. When the doctor stepped off of the last stair and entered the room they all stood expectantly.
“How is he?” Murdoch demanded.
“A lot of debris in with the bullet…jacket, shirt fibers, dirt. I’m fairly certain I got it cleaned out but we’ll watch for infection. He also has bruised ribs and a minor concussion. None are serious, but together they’ll have him pretty sore for awhile. Especially now. I’m sure that bullet hurt worse coming out than going in.”
Murdoch had gotten up and poured his old friend a drink while he was talking. He handed the glass over to him. “Oh?”
“Thanks,” Sam took a sip of the scotch. “Yes, it seems your boy has an aversion to pain medication. Flat out refused.” He shook his head. “Always was stubborn as I recall.”
Scott looked at him in surprise. “You know him?”
“Sam delivered your brother,” Murdoch explained. “Took care of him for those first two years.” He seemed to look into the distance. “We’ve drank to both you boys health together many times over the years.”
Scott looked thoughtful at this revelation. It had never really sunk in that his brother had actually lived here as a child. Had been a part of his father’s life. As opposed to being clear on the other side of the continent, never seen or touched by him.
“Do you think I should see if he will at least take some willowbark tea? I made some up,” Teresa offered.
“It would help with the pain,” the doctor agreed. “IF you can get him to drink it/”
She nodded understanding and went to the kitchen.
Scott was still contemplating the doctor’s connection to Johnny. “Did you know about his…occupation?”
“Madrid? Yes, your father told me when he first found out.”
“And that was when?”
Murdoch looked down into his own glass. “Last year. Not long before Paul was killed. We, he and I talked about it. Whether…” he trailed off.
Scott frowned, not liking the inference. “What about it? Did you question bringing him home?”
“No. Not really. I just wondered what had happened to my little boy to make him choose…” he shook his head. “But it’s past. He’s here.”
Sam handed his glass back. “I’m not so sure it’s past for him, Murdoch. Someone doesn’t just change that kind of life overnight. You may have a rocky road ahead of you, my friend.”
Teresa came back in. “He’s sleeping.”
“Good,” the doctor said. “I better be going. Keep an eye out for any fever that would indicate infection. He SHOULD stay off his feet for a few days, but as he so pointedly reminded me…several times…he has taken care of himself for a long time and he’s still alive. Encourage him to take it easy. I’ll be back out in a day or so unless you need me sooner.”
Murdoch clasped his hand. “Thanks Sam/”
Scott also came over and shook his hand. “Yes, thank you, sir.”
Sam smiled as he returned the handshake. “It is a privilege and a pleasure to finally
meet you, young man. It’s been a hell of a journey. Good night.”
Murdoch followed him to the door and closed it behind him. He turned to the two weary young people. “I suggest we all turn in. As I recall we missed going to bed last night.”
Everyone agreed that was a good idea, however up in the hall, Scott and Murdoch both reached for Johnny’s door at the same time.
“Going to check on him?” Scott asked.
“Actually I thought I’d sit with him awhile. Make sure that fever doesn’t start.”
Scott gave his small smile. “I get the distinct impression he would not take kindly to being coddled.”
“Good,” Murdoch told him. “I think I’ve forgotten any coddling skills I may have had.” He reached again for the door.
“Speaking of coddling, what if I take the first shift and you get off of that leg for a few hours.”
“I’m not…!” Murdoch began, but Scott crossed his arms and held his ground. After glaring for a few moments, he gave in. “Alright. If I don’t relieve you by midnight, you get me.”
“That’s an order.”
Scott suppressed a smile. “Yes, sir. I will do as I’m told. Good night, sir.” He took hold of the doorknob.
Murdoch put out a hand as if he was going to touch his son, but didn’t. “Scott…”
He turned back. “Sir?”
“I just wanted to say thank you for everything today. The clean up and organizing . It was well done. “
“I was reminded today that you are someone to be proud of. Although since I had no hand in it…”
They looked at each other for a moment, but Murdoch didn’t finish the thought. Scott wondered what his father was thinking. It didn’t seem however, that he was going to find out. He finally nodded.
“You should get that sleep while you can.”
Murdoch went to his own door, but turned back briefly. “Midnight.”
“Midnight,” Scott smiled and nodded again. He went in the room and checked the man in the bed before settling in the chair by the low lit lamp. He opened up a book he had picked up from the large collection downstairs.
“What happens at midnight?” came a sleepy voice from the bed.
Even in the dim light Scott saw Johnny’s face harden. “And why is it I need a guard?”
Scott closed his book. “By your comments I assume you have been shot before.”
“You could say that.”
“Surely someone has sat by you as you recovered.”
“Not that I recall.”
Scott covered his dismay by using his officer voice. “Well, someone is now.”
Johnny cocked his head. “So you gonna just sit there and stare at me all night?”
“No. You are going to sleep and I am going to read my book,” he opened it again for emphasis, “and occasionally check you for fever as per the doctor’s orders.”
“Sounds pretty boring,” Johnny observed.
“I appreciate your concern for my welfare. Now, do you need anything before I get on with said reading?”
Scott raised a brow. “Do you have a tequila fetish, Little Brother?”
“On what fetish means.”
“A predisposition for…” he looked at the glare Johnny was giving him. “You like it a lot.”
Johnny grinned in agreement. “I like it a lot.” He shifted and grimaced. “Especially when somethin’s hurting.”
“If you’re in pain, the doctor left some…”
“No!” Johnny cut him off. “I don’t take it.”
Scott looked at his determined expression. “I assume you have a reason besides stubbornness for enduring the discomfort.”
Scott waited patiently, then raised a brow in question. “And…?”
“What? I gotta tell you before you believe me?”
Scott shook his head. “Not necessarily. But if you were incapacitated and the doctor or our father decided it was in your best interests to give it to you, I could fight for your rights better with the correct information.”
Johnny frowned in confusion. “Why would you be fightin for me?”
Scott paused before saying simply, “You’re my brother.”
Johnny considered the man before him for a long time. Just about the time Scott thought he was not going to answer, he said quietly, “You ever have nightmares?”
Scott froze. Not a question he actually wanted to answer. “Yes, I have,” he said with no inflection.
Johnny blinked in surprise at the forceful tone.
Realization dawned on Scott. “Laudanum makes them worse.”
“A lot. Worse.”
Scott nodded. “Then unless I am reasonably convinced it is a matter of life and death, I will do whatever is in my power to assure you do not receive any without your consent.”
Johnny grinned again. “Shit, Boston, do you ever just say yes or no?”
“Yes,” Scott went back to his book.
“So what about the tequila?”
“What if I threaten to shoot you?”
“Number one, that will not produce something that you were informed the other evening was not in the house…and number two, you would have to have a gun.”
“I have a gun.”
Scott scoffed. “I meant in your bed.”
Johnny raised up his pillow enough for Scott to see the pistol in his right hand.
Scott raised both brows at that. “Always?”
“I feel safer already.”
“Still no tequila?”
“Still no tequila. Good night, Johnny.”
“Good night, Scott.”
Johnny roused sometime later to see not Scott but Murdoch sitting in the chair. It concerned him that he had slept through the “shift change”. Things like that got a person killed in his line of work….If that was still his line of work.
After a couple of minutes Murdoch noticed he was being stared at. “Good morning.”
Johnny looked at the still dark window. “Is it? Morning?”
Murdoch smiled and shook his head. “Not even close.” He watched as Johnny shifted around. “It would seem to be uncomfortable laying on that side. Shouldn’t you..?”
Johnny glared at him. “I’m fine.”
Murdoch looked at the hand Johnny continued to keep hidden under the pillow. “Scott said you had a gun .”
“You don’t need it here.”
Johnny snorted. The only thing he was going to get tired of faster than people asking what he needed, was them telling him what he didn’t need. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to sit here.”
Murdoch frowned at the dismissive tone. “I don’t want people sleeping with guns under their pillows in my house.”
Johnny frowned back. “It’s my gun and my room…so you said.”
“Of course it is. That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point? Pinks told you who I was, Ol Man. You either want me here or you don’t.”
Murdoch nearly stuttered in exasperation. “What does my wanting you here have to do with you sleeping with a gun in your bed?”
“Part of the package,” Johnny said simply
.For some reason Johnny didn’t understand, Murdoch’s tone softened abruptly. “ The Madrid package. What about the Johnny Lancer package?”
Johnny gave a half shrug. “Don’t know who he is.”
“Maybe it’s time to find out,” his father said gently.
Johnny gave a small sigh, but didn’t give any other answer. After a minute he closed his eyes and appeared to go back to sleep. Murdoch came over to the bed and reached a hand out toward his son.
“I got no fever,” Johnny spat out without even opening his eyes.
“Good…good.” The older man returned to the chair and sat down. The room was quiet for several minutes, and he almost dozed off.
Johnny’s voice surprised him awake. “Murdoch?”
He blinked. He was pretty sure that was the first time he had called him anything other than ‘old man’. It wasn’t the ‘pa’ he’d always dreamed of, but he would take it. “Yes?”
“Scott said I made four wounded. What about the others that were hurt?”
“An arm wound and a leg wound seem to be doing well. Both had concussions from falling.”
“And the other one?”
“He didn’t make it.”
The man in the bed appeared to think for a minute. “That leaves you only twelve hands. Thirteen with Boston I guess.”
Murdoch wondered what to think about Johnny’s sudden concern for the ranch and its hands. “Now that the trouble is over I’ll hire more. Some may even come back.”
Johnny cocked his head in puzzlement. “You’d take ‘em back after they run out on you?”
“There are some I would. I know their reasons for leaving. They are good men who had to make a hard choice.”
“Sounds like you know them pretty well…I mean they’re just hired hands, right?”
Now Murdoch was more confused. In a few short sentences Johnny had gone from concern for the hands to practically degrading them. What went on in the black haired head anyway? And did he really want to know? Not tonight, he didn’t. “I try to know the men who work for me.”
Johnny thought about that for a long time before his pretend sleeping turned into the real thing. He wondered about a man who took the time to know his workers…but couldn’t be bothered trying to understand what was important to his own son.
Murdoch and Scott sat at the kitchen table finishing a cup of coffee after lunch. They had spent the morning looking over the books as Murdoch explained some of the business end of ranching. He had been quite pleased that his eldest son had picked up on everything very quickly. Of course that meant a grudging gratitude for Scott’s education and experiences as a junior officer in his grandfather’s large accounting firm.
And now they had enjoyed a pleasant lunch together. His heart was filled with hope that maybe, just maybe, they could figure out how to live and work together.
As he was pondering these hopes, there was a knock on the back door. Scott jumped up to answer it, stepping back to let the visitor enter.
“Doctor! I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”
“I had some other rounds and thought I’d swing by. I already stopped by the bunkhouse. They seem to be doing well. How is my other patient?” He sat down at the table and accepted a cup of coffee from Murdoch.
“Teresa just took some lunch up to him. He was awake off and on during the night. We talked some. He didn’t seem in too much discomfort.”
“Same on my watch,” Scott reported. “ In fact he seemed in good sprirts, teasing with that grin of his.”
Murdoch raised his brows at this description. That was hardly the exchange he had had with his son. But perhaps it wasn’t unusual for them to automatically relate better to someone their own age.
“Good. No fever, then?”
“None so far,” Murdoch assured him.
Sam shook his head. “It still bothers me that he refused the medication. He needs to sleep through the night.”
“Like you said, he’s been stubborn since he was born. But we’ll make sure he gets it if he needs it.”
“No we won’t.”
The firmness in Scott’s voice startled both men.
“I beg your pardon?” Sam asked him.
“He has an adverse reaction to it. Unless his life is in danger without it, we won’t give it to him.”
Sam frowned. “And how do you know about this reaction?”
“He told me.”
Murdoch looked at him. “Scott…”
Scott crossed his arms. “I promised my brother I would respect his wishes. And I will.”
Teresa came down the back stairs carrying a tray of food.
“Oh, hi, Dr. Jenkins. I didn’t know you were here.”
Sam frowned at the tray. “Not much appetite?”
She shook her head. “Not a bite. He ate better than that yesterday. And a little breakfast this morning. I even offered to make something different that he liked, but he said he didn’t want anything.”
Before the doctor could respond, Scott was up the stairs and into Johnny’s room. His brother was fully dressed except for boots and was sitting up on the bed, leaning against the headboard. Scott settled into the chair and gave him a sympathetic look.
“Not a wise strategic move, Little Brother.”
Johnny frowned at him in confusion. “What?”
“Offending the cook.”
Johnny sighed and picked at the cover he was sitting on. “I’m sure it was all good. Just not hungry.” At Scott’s disbelieving expression he added, “I’m fine.”
“Ah.” Scott nodded in comprehension. “I admit in the…what, four days since we met , at least half of which one or both of us was sleeping, we haven’t had a lot of time to become acquainted. But I am reasonably sure that when you say ‘I’m fine’ it actually means ‘something is wrong and I don’t want to discuss it.’ “
Johnny stared at him, but didn’t answer.
Scott glanced at the door. “Just wanted to give you an option. The doctor and our father should be up here in about a minute.”
Johnny blinked in surprise. “Doctor! What’s he doing here?”
“Checking on you would be my first guess as you are the one with the bullet hole.”
“I don’t need a doctor…”
“Glad to hear it,” Sam said coming in the door. “Then this can be a social call.”
The old doctor looked at him for a moment. “You didn’t feel like eating your lunch?”
“I’ve been layin’ around for almost two days. Not doing anything to get hungry.”
“Hmmm.” The doctor seemed unconvinced. “Your word that’s all it is?”
Johnny looked at him tiredly and didn’t answer.
“Alright. Everybody out,” the doc ordered suddenly.
“Sam, I’d like to…” Murdoch began.
“Murdoch Lancer, unless you want an audience the next time I strip you for an exam you will step out.”
The senior Lancer grumbled, but left. Scott gave his brother a sympathetic ‘good luck’ pat on the leg and followed his father out into the hall. The doctor shut the door firmly behind them.
“You ain’t strippin’ me.”
“No, I’m not.” He fastened his bag for emphasis. “Nevertheless, I have discovered something about you.”
“And what’s that?”
“You are a man of your word.”
Johnny actually laughed out loud at that. “How do you figure that?”
“Well, both before and today you had a smart answer for anything I asked or said. Until I asked for your word. Then, instead of saying something untrue, you simply didn’t answer.”
He stared at the doctor for a moment. “Well, between you and Scott you got me all figured out so I reckon I don’t have to say anything more.”
“Scott has you figured, does he?”
“Thinks he does. Same as you do.”
“Are we wrong?”
Again there was no answer. Sam sat down on the edge of the bed. “Johnny, do you know what the Hippocratic oath is?”
The young man nodded. “You gotta help anybody that needs it. And you don’t tell what your patients say.”
“Exactly. Better than a priest or a bartender.”
There was a long, long silence. Sam just sat and waited it out. His patience was finally rewarded when Johnny gave a soft sigh and began.
“You know what I am? What I do?”
“He wants me to just up and walk away from it all and it ain’t that simple.”
“Do you want to be away from it?”
Johnny rubbed a tired hand across his face. “Any sane man would want out. Everyday, killin’ or be killed…But, dammit, doc, all he talks about is how I’m supposed to be Johnny Lancer. Like I lived through twenty years of shit and come back here no different than I was when I was two. I’m not what he wants.”
“And what is it you think he wants?”
Johnny snorted as if it was obvious. “A black haired Scott. Someone he trusts, someone who does things right.”
“I had the feeling that you liked Scott.”
“I do. Don’t know why, but I do…And he wants this. He wants this so bad he can taste it. Look at him. One day here and he changes everything down to his clothes. And I’m happy for him. I am…but I don’t think I can do it.”
“Maybe you don’t have to change everything all at once like Scott did. That’s what worked for him.”
“Try explainin that to the ol man. No, it’s everything all at once or nothin.”
“You know, you should be having this conversation with Murdoch.”
“We can’t say hello without arguing.”
“And it’s not worth trying to work it out?”
Johnny leaned his head back, looked up at the ceiling and made a frustrated sound. “I picked up a gun when I was just a kid to kill that bastard that was beaten my mama to death. I kept pickin it up to keep from getting beat up myself. Or some other poor guy from being taken advantage of, or to stop a range war, or to…” he sighed again. “I got more hate than blood runnin through me. And the top of the list was Murdoch Lancer. The source of all me and mama’s trouble…Only he ain’t. He gave… hell, the thousand dollars coulda been to clear a guilty conscience or something,…but his ranch? Even considering giving someone like me a piece of his ranch? I don’t know what to even think of that.”
Sam gave a little nod. “Hard to eat with all that going on in your gut.”
Johnny felt grateful that he seemed to understand. “I think I want to be here, but…” he shook his head. “And that’s another thing. I spent my whole life working real hard at not wanting anything. Then I come here and…” He stopped and looked at the doctor seriously. “I tell ya, doc, I’m coming real close to ridin out of here, bullet or no bullet. Except for getting a couple of miles down the road and getting hung for a horse thief.”
“I broke that palomino and kinda claimed it as mine, not just for workin, ya know. But I don’t know if I left with it how he’d feel.”
“You could ask.”
Johnny gave a little ironic smile. “And he’ll either say it’s mine and be mad I had to ask, or he’ll say it’s his and be mad I thought I could claim it. No win.”
“And what if he says ‘Yes, son, it’s yours’ ?”
“Won’t know until you try.”
Johnny thought a moment. “Okay, I ask. If he don’t get mad I’ll eat that whole lunch. If he does you all will leave me alone about it.”
“Deal.” Sam stood up. “But even if he says it’s yours you don’t ride for a few days.”
Johnny started to be angry, then grinned. “I shoulda bet on ridin instead of lunch.”
Sam smiled in return. “Nice try. Now let’s do a quick look at that hole in your back to keep me honest.”
A short time later he opened the door to find both Murdoch and Scott still hovering in the hall. They both came in whether they were invited or not.
“He’s mending fine,” Sam told them. “He can be up and around as he feels like it. That may help him have an appetite. I discourage riding for awhile longer, but…” He looked at Johnny for a second. “I trust he will use good sense.”
“That reminds me,” Johnny said, taking his cue. “About the palomino…”
Murdoch looked puzzled. “Yes. What about him?”
“Well, I broke it and all and been ridin it…”
“I know Cipriano picked it out for me to use but I didn’t figure I should just assume…”
Murdoch crossed his arms in frustration. “Are you asking if you can keep him?”
Murdoch let out a slow breath. “Yes. He’s yours. To keep. I’m sorry you had to ask.”
Johnny and Sam exchanged a look. What was that? A draw?
Sam picked up his bag. “Well, I’d better be going. I hope you feel more like eating soon, John.”
Johnny rolled his eyes a little. “Thanks , doc.”
Murdoch frowned at the interchange but didn’t ask. “I’ll see you out, Sam.”
Scott waited until they were down the hall, then turned to his brother. “Are you alright? And no ‘I’m fine’ bullshit.”
Johnny smirked. “Do they teach you to talk like that in Boston?”
“You, young man, are avoiding the question.”
“You heard the doc. I’m mendin.”
“So your body is doing well. I’m glad to hear it.” He stood looking at him a little longer. “Tired of these walls yet?”
Johnny blew out his breath. “Damn right I am.” He looked at his big brother . “Got something in mind?”
“Nothing too daring. A trip down the hall to my room for starters.”
“Scott, your room’s right next to mine. Not much of a trip.”
“Only if you use the connecting door. If you go out the other way and around it’s a longer trip. Just to stretch your legs.”
Johnny considered it. “So what would we do in your room besides look at different walls?”
“I don’t know. Do you play chess?”
Johnny brightened a little. “Some.”
“I’m sure I can find a board around here somewhere.”
“Don’t the ol man have you doin bookwork or something today?” At Scott’s questioning look he added, “Don’t want you gettin chewed out on my account.”
“There are a few more things he had intended to go over this afternoon. If you can manage to keep from going stir crazy for a little longer, I will be back up with the board as soon as he and I are done.”
Johnny wondered at this act of friendship. “Yeah, sure.”
Scott gave him a nod of assurance then went out. A little later, Teresa came back to see if he had changed his mind about lunch.
“I tell you!” Johnny complained. “This is the busiest bedroom I’ve ever seen. I might as well have camped out down on the couch in the middle of everything.”
Teresa cocked her head. “Would you rather be left alone?”
He shrugged a little. “Reckon I’m just not used to all this attention. Doctors comin, and food brought up to me and people sittin here all night…Not had any of that before.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Well what happened when you got hurt before?”
He looked at her honest, caring…even if a bit naïve, face. “I managed,” was all he said.
“We just want to make sure you’re alright,” she explained.
He smiled. “I am. Look, you go on and do whatever you need to. I’ll be fine til dinner.”
“And then you’ll eat?”
“And then I’ll eat.”
She gave him a stern look. “You better.”
If he was being honest, Scott would have to admit he was rather enjoying the day spent over the columns of numbers and ranch documents with his father. It wasn’t that accounting was his favorite activity. But it was something he knew well and realized he could contribute to the ranch. Eventually he would have to learn all of the hands on work, but Murdoch seemed content with this for now.
Content. He would hardly have used such a word to describe his father a couple of days ago. Harsh, cold, formidable, domineering…ass. Those were more appropriate descriptions at first. He smiled at the thought.
“Something amusing?” Murdoch asked, seeing his expression.
“Not really,” Scott thought fast. “I was just thinking that it has been a pleasant day.
No fires, no fist fights, no shooting. Just nice quiet book work.”
Murdoch smiled as well. “Well, don’t get too used to the quiet. Fires and attacks may not be a daily routine, but ranch life is always busy.” He looked as if he was going to say more, but instead turned back to the papers before him.
Scott stared at the abrupt move Johnny had just made. “Is that how you always play?”
Johnny frowned at the board. “Sure. Why not?”
“It is typically a game of planning and strategy,” he explained as he slowly and carefully moved a chess piece.
“In my line of work I never have more than a second for plans or strategies.”
Scott looked at him thoughtfully and tried once again to imagine his brother’s life. While he did so, Johnny made another quick move, then sat back and grinned. Scott cocked his head in puzzlement. “What?”
Johnny just sat and grinned.
Scott looked down at the board. “That’s not…I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed.
Murdoch heard the shout from the hall and hurried to the bedroom door. “What is it?” he asked in concern.
Johnny glanced up at him, grin still in place. “Ol Boston here didn’t think a half-breed gunhawk could beat him in chess is all.”
Murdoch froze. “What did you say?”
Johnny’s smile slipped as he explained, “I said I beat him…”
“No. What you called yourself. Why?”
Johnny answered slowly. “Because I am a gunhawk. And a half-breed. Half Mex, half gringo.” He picked up a chess piece and pretended to move it. “Funny thing. Some people think that you have two worlds. When really…you don’t have any.”
No one spoke. The awkward silence stretched until Murdoch said, “I came to tell you dinner was ready, Scott.”
Johnny avoided looking at his father, but gave a forced smile to his brother. “Better go eat. Keep up your strength for a re match.”
Scott stood up to leave. “Count on it.”
Johnny sat for a moment, staring at the door his father had shut behind him. Then he shook his head and pushed to his feet. Back in his own room, he picked at the dinner tray Teresa had brought to him. When he had eaten enough to satisfy everyone, he found his boots under the bed and put them on.
Johnny glanced at his brother standing in the open door and shrugged it off. “Just got tired of being half dressed.”
Scott came on in and sat in the other chair. “Yes, not being fully dressed can make a person feel…vulnerable.”
Johnny looked him in the eye at that, but didn’t comment.
“You didn’t mean to say that to him, did you?” Scott persisted.
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t know why I did. Just came out. The past is in the past. That’s the rules, right?’
“Maybe for him,” Scott said. “It doesn’t have to be for us.”
“Meaning I think I would like to get to know you better, Brother.”
Johnny paused before asking seriously, “You sure?”
“Yes. Why? Do you think something you say will change that?”
“Somethin like that.”
Scott extended his hand. “I give you my word. The worst thing you can say will not change the fact that you are my brother and part of this family.”
“That’s because you don’t know the worst.”
“Try me.” When Johnny just shook his head, he amended it with. “Alright. Second worst.”
Johnny looked at Scott’s hand for another moment before taking it in a firm handshake. Then he forced himself to look his brother in the eye. He didn’t know why this was so much harder than when he had blurted it out to the doc earlier.
“You were right.”
“I was twelve. The first man I shot. He was my mama’s latest…I came home and he was beatin the shit out of her. I tried to get in the way, but he just threw me across the room. I landed near his gun. When she stopped screamin’ he started to come at me. I picked up his gun and fired. And kept firing until he dropped. Then I crawled over to Mama. I told her it was alright. I would take care of her. She looked at me and said…” he stopped. It took a few moments for him to gather the resolve to finish. “she said, ‘I always hated your blue eyes.’ Then she died.” He dropped those blue eyes to the floor. “What kind of person is worth so little that their own mama hates them with her dyin’ breath?” Johnny slumped, exhausted in his chair.
Scott was silent. Finally, he swallowed and managed, “I don’t know what to say, Johnny.”
Johnny glanced up, misinterpreting his meaning. Thinking that he really had ruined it all.
But Scott wasn’t finished. “I am honored that you trust me with that…I don’t wish to cheapen such a confidence with competition, but I feel I owe you something as personal.”
Johnny couldn’t believe his ears. This man, this stranger, not only accepted his pain, but was willing to trust him with his own. He gave a small nod of acceptance of the gift.
“I was seventeen when I signed up for the army. I thought I was doing something glorious and honorable. My grandfather’s connections bought me a commission. He wanted to buy me a desk job in Washington, but I wouldn’t accept it. I was going to right the wrongs of the world.” He gave a small laugh at his own folly. “Instead I was surrounded by every human deprivation possible…death, starvation, abuse, horrors I had never…” He paused again. “I went home and recovered my health, but my mind stayed…disconnected is the only way I can say it. I didn’t care. About anything. I went through the motions of finishing school and slipping into my expected place in my grandfather’s world.
“I filled my evenings with drinking and gambling and my nights with, shall we be polite and say female companionship. I never forced myself, but there are more than a few young Boston ladies who probably regret…” He took a breath. “I began to hate myself. How shallow I had become. Nothing mattered to me anymore. When I received Murdoch’s invitation I looked on it as just another lark…As well as a way to irritate my grandfather.” He looked down at his hands. “Everyone talks about my Harvard education and my being an officer in the army. But all I see in the mirror is a cad.”
After a moment, Johnny said softly, “Scott?” He waited until his brother was looking him in the eye. “You’re not shallow.”
Scott held his gaze. “And you’re not worthless.”
A few more moments and Johnny gave a hint of a smile. “Now we know the worst about each other, are we stuck together?”
“Second worst,” Scott corrected.
Johnny blinked. “Yours too?”
“At the very least, not the whole story.”
They sat in companionable silence for awhile, digesting this person before them. Was this what it was like to have a brother? To be a brother? To know, and be known, and still be accepted. To still be acceptable. It seemed right. And good. Brothers… But what about sons?
“I wonder if we will ever get to the place where we can talk about these things with our father?”
Johnny snorted. “He still plays by his own rules remember? Past is past. Dead and gone. The only thing that matters is this ranch.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to think of him.”
“I believe I’m beginning to,” Scott said slowly, as if thinking out loud.
Scott paused as usual. Wanting to say things correctly. “You know how he said he was from Inverness?”
Johnny stared at him for several seconds. “I reckon if I sit here long enough you’ll tell me where that is.”
“Scotland. On the other side of the world from here. And by all evidence, he came alone.”
Johnny considered that. “So he’s got no kin here.”
“And he lost two wives…And us.”
“And Teresa’s daddy. And who knows what else.”
Scott nodded. “Exactly.”
“I’ve seen men broke by less,” Johnny said thoughtfully.
“Lesser men, perhaps.”
Another thoughtful moment. Then Johnny said, with a hint of pride, “Murdoch didn’t break.”
“No,” Scott agreed, “he built walls instead. I believe he has spent twenty years inside those walls, wondering who we were and what we were like. He was totally unprepared for the reality.”
Johnny grinned. “A dandy and a pistolero?”
“When those two strangers came into his house the other day, he protected himself behind those walls again. Focusing on this ranch has been his existence. It’s what he knows. But I think he sincerely wants us here. He just has to find out who we are.”
Johnny sighed. “You know never in my wildest notions did I think he wanted me…let alone wanted to share his ranch.”
“What do you want, Johnny?” Scott asked seriously.
“I stopped wantin’ things a long time ago.”
“Saves a lot of disappointment?”
Another grin. “Exactly, Boston.” The grin slipped. “The thing is, I survived by bein’ in control. Sounds like so has he..” He cocked his head at his brother. “What about you?”
“Control? I get a certain satisfaction from being in command of a situation. But I was raised in a chain of command. I was a lieutenant, not a general. I don’t mind moving up eventually, but I’m comfortable in my role.”
“See, he’s comfortable with your role too. He sees you like a partner. He sees me as a threat. He said it flat out. ‘Only one man can run this ranch.’ “
“Are you a threat?”
“ I don’t want to run his ranch. But I cant’ hand over control of my life.”
“He did offer to share…”
“He don’t want to share anything with Johnny Madrid. Only Johnny Lancer and that’s not who I am. As long as that’s how it feels, it ain’t gonna work.”
A part of Scott’s mind noted in amusement how his brother’s drawl was more pronounced the more agitated he became. Might be a good barometer in the future. But for now, “I must admit, Little Brother, I’m hoping it will work.”
Johnny’s face hardened in determination. “If he could give an inch, give me some idea he accepts who I am…” He stopped and shook his head.
Scott frowned. “You really can’t , can you? You really can’t just say that you want to be here.”
“I can’t Scott. Unless I have some idea it won’t just get ripped away…I think he’s a good man. I guess I’ll never know what happened with my mama but I don’t think he would hurt her on purpose.” By the end of the statement, his head was down, eyes staring at nothing.
“You’re going to have to decide what you are going to do. I believe he wants to go to town and sign that paper as soon as you can ride.”
His head snapped up. “I can ride.”
“The doctor said…”
“The doctor said I can say when.”
Scott gave a controlled sigh. “Maybe not that half wild palomino.”
“ ‘That palomino’ probably saved my life.”
Scott smiled. “And in gratitude I assume you will find a better name than ‘that palomino’?”
Johnny smiled a bit shyly. “Barranca.”
A pause, then, “And if I sit here long enough you will tell me what that means.”
“Not sure I can.”
Scott’s brows rose in question. “You seem fluent in both languages…assuming that is Spanish.”
“Yes, but…I know what the word means. I just don’t know if I can tell you what it means to me.”
“Ah. I understand. Start with what it actually means.”
Johnny thought a moment. “A gully. Or canyon.”
Scott’s brows went up again. “You named your horse gully or canyon?”
“No! That’s not…okay, think about a canyon. Deep walls of the most beautiful golden sandstone you ever saw. Runnin’ down the middle is a river. You start to follow that river and all of a sudden it opens up into this wide open place just full of possibilities.” He paused and took a breath. “That’s what Barranca means. Golden possibilities.”
Scott stared in amazement. “My brother is a poet.”
Johnny frowned rather fiercely. “You say a word about me and poetry and I’ll have to shoot you.”
“That’s the second or third time you have threatened to shoot me. When will I know it is real?”
The grin was back. “When I say it to someone else.”
There was a tap on the door and Murdoch opened it and looked in. “Ah, there you both are.”
Scott stood. “Yes, sir. Just getting acquainted.”
“Good,” their father said. “Good idea.”
“You want something’?” Johnny said in a neutral voice.
“I just came to see how you were doing before I turn in. You still never ate much today.”
Murdoch nodded. “Sam said you know what you need. Maybe tomorrow you can come down and feel more a part of things. Give you more of an appetite.”
Johnny shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe.”
Murdoch paused just a second, as if he wanted to say more, but merely said, “Alright. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
“Good night, Sir,” Scott told him as he turned to leave, then looked at Johnny.
He took the hint. “Good night, Murdoch.”
The big man looked back with a small smile. “Good night, Son.” He nodded at Scott. “Good night.” He left, closing the door again behind him.
Scott smiled approvingly. “That seemed hopeful.” Johnny made no comment.
“Well, I think I’ll go read awhile before I turn in too…now that you don’t need a guard anymore.”
“No, I don’t. Go read, Boston.”
Scott stopped at the door and turned back. “Good night , Johnny.”
“Good night, Scott.”
The older brother nodded. “Just checking that you remember my actual name.” They traded a smile, and he left.
Two days later, they were standing in the lawyer’s office. Johnny stood by Teresa, letting the others go first. Was he going to do this? Could he sign a name he didn’t even claim?
Scott finished signing and smiled first at his father, and then at Johnny. Will he sign? Will he get that inch from Murdoch? An inch, Father. That’s all my brother is asking for.
Murdoch signed his name and looked at Johnny. Will he do it? How can I give him what he wants? I don’t want him to be Johnny Madrid. I want my Johnny Lancer back…but this is the package he comes in. All of him. What can I…Yes. “Oh, Mr. Randall. I should have told you. That last name should read John Madrid…not Lancer.” He held Johnny’s eyes. My gift to you, Son.
“Fix it in a minute,” the lawyer was saying.
Scott’s breath caught. That’s your inch, brother. Do you recognize it?
Johnny stared at his father. He was letting him sign Madrid on his precious Lancer contract? Couldn’t be a trick on a legal paper. He must mean it. He must…”No,” he heard himself say. “Let it stand…”
~ end ~
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