Word count: 2,775
THIRD PLACE Lancer Writer Awards: Best Episode Tag- Buscaderos
Johnny tugged at the barn door and left it open behind him as he headed toward Barranca’s stall. Bright morning sunlight angled its way through the doorway and spilled across the hard-packed hay-strewn ground. A few steps in the glare yielded the lofty space to a muted glow, with only an occasional glimmering spot of sunlight cutting through knot holes in the stable walls.
Johnny moved light-footed through flashing sabers that slashed harmlessly across his skin. Barranca hailed his approach with a nicker and head bob. Johnny shifted the saddlebag in his right hand to his left, and returned the greeting with a slow stroke across the golden horse’s mane. His mood was pensive. The familiar gesture calmed man and beast.
He made an easy job of saddling Barranca, but a soft scrape of boots across clay meant the day’s work would need to wait a little longer. “I thought Murdoch told you to stay put today.” He let Barranca’s reins fall from his hand and turned to face Scott. Johnny knew his brother well, and today Scott’s walk was just a might too stiff and halting, his back losing the battle to remain military straight.
“I took it as more of a suggestion,” Scott said. A flick of sunlight revealed the trace of a smile curling his lips. He reached up to adjust his hat and halted in his tracks. A grimace swallowed what bit of smile he’d managed. Scott’s arm lowered and the hat stayed where it was.
“Seems like a good suggestion to me,” Johnny said.
Scott’s scowl cut through the dusty haze.
“Suit yourself,” Johnny said. He grabbed Barranca’s reins and guided him from the stall. “Can I at least saddle your horse?” he asked as the brothers neared.
“No thanks. I can manage,” Scott answered.
“See you outside then,” Johnny said, leaving Scott and his stubborn dignity to tackle the task alone.
Johnny walked from the barn into the warming sunlight and took in a deep, relaxing breath. It was a new day still haunted by events from the day before, and Johnny wondered how quickly they’d all be able to consider things set to right again. Scott had some physical healing to manage from the beating he took. That was for sure. But something more needed mending.
Drago’s band of raiders knocked Scott around and ransacked the inside of the hacienda while waiting for the town’s tax money ransom to be delivered. Now Johnny took a good look at the courtyard and the damage caused there. A hole was blown into one of the low curved walls. ‘ Murdoch and Jelly and that stick of dynamite ,’ Johnny recalled from the report about their failed attempt to rescue Scott. On another section of the wall, Johnny spotted something else he couldn’t quite figure out . . . .
Johnny walked toward the intriguing section of courtyard wall to get a closer look. He hitched Barranca to a post nearby. He stood before the wall, the ground around him littered with small chunks of adobe brick and mortar. Sharp eyes peered across the façade into the pockmarks scattered there like so much diseased skin, the pattern an unmistakable memento from Drago’s Gatling gun – with one glaring exception. He stared at the gaping clear spot smack dab in the middle of the carnage, and then turned to face the open courtyard.
Scott stood there staring back, not ten feet in front of him.
“Was this somebody having more fun at your expense?”
It took a silent, still moment for Scott to answer. “No. Yours.”
Johnny took his own moment to consider. “My shadow again, falling dark across you.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Scott said. He mounted up with an irrepressible groan and took off at a gallop.
Johnny hit the saddle and followed. He caught up just past the commanding archway that welcomed guests to the Lancer ranch. “Where you headed?” he called.
Scott slowed a bit. Only a bit. “High country, to check on the spring grass and cattle you were supposed to be responsible for.”
Johnny laughed, drawing a sideways glance from Scott. “Oh, no we ain’t,” Johnny said. “There’s more than fifteen men up there doin’ the same thing. Our eyes won’t make a lick of difference. Besides, you ain’t foolin’ anyone. A day in the saddle and you won’t be able to move tomorrow.”
“You nothin’. Come on. Follow me.” Johnny spurred Barranca forward and took the lead. He smiled when he heard Scott’s horse gallop up to match his pace.
The brothers traveled about a mile before Johnny led them into a patch of woods and down a deer trail lush with freshly sprouted leaves and soft underbrush. They went another quarter mile before the woods gave way to a small clearing and an inviting pool of clear spring-fed water.
Johnny reined up and lit down. He removed Barranca’s saddle and his saddlebag and tossed them onto the ground, up against the biggest shade tree near the pond. He gave the horse a soft slap on the rump and set him to graze. He was finished before Scott barely started fumbling with his own horse’s saddle. Johnny walked over and swiped at Scott’s hands. “Go on and sit down. I’ll get this. A soak in that pond would do you good, you know.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Scott said, even as he walked toward the water’s edge.
Scott headed back just as Johnny sent the second horse off to feed. “Thanks,” Scott said. He pressed a dampened handkerchief against a sizeable bruise coloring his cheek.
“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” Johnny said, offering up one of his finest mischief-laden grins. “Just remember though . . . when Murdoch asks about them cattle, you tell him the men are doing a good job and should be back in a few days.”
Scott stared at Johnny, his expression a combination of amusement and suspicion. “That’s a pretty general report. What if he asks for slightly more specific information?”
“He won’t,” Johnny said – but doubt dimmed his bravado. “But in case he does, you grab your ribs and tell him how sore you are from the long ride. He’ll back off, you’ll see.”
Scott could only shake his head over the logic. “You are an excellent liar, you know that?”
“Yep. I do. Do a lot of things well.” Johnny’s lighthearted arrogance and roguish grin died away with his next thought. “Seems to me you did a few things pretty well as Johnny Madrid, too. How did it feel, bein’ me for a day?”
Scott’s own mood sobered. “Quite frankly, exhausting,” he said. He moved over to where Johnny had laid out both their saddle blankets and sat down, leaning back against his saddle, propped up against that shade tree. “Madrid’s a lot to live up to,” he added reflectively.
Johnny set his hands on his hips. “The little pieces I figured out so far ain’t enough, Scott. I think I need to know why Drago was so all-fired set on getting one up on me. And who was that girl?”
“Violet,” Scott said. “Her name was Violet. You . . . Madrid . . . passed through her life once.”
“Yeah, I thought she looked kinda familiar,” Johnny said. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “But I can’t-”
Scott held up a hand. “Don’t try too hard to figure out when and where. I’m sure you barely noticed her. But you did make an extraordinary impression on a lonely young girl. In her mind, she saw you as the man to beat all men, and you never left her dreams. When Drago found her, she set up a rivalry between you – Madrid – and him so that he’d love her. Poor girl figured she was worth more if Drago thought you had wanted her first.”
Johnny shook his head. “That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. She wanted him to love her, so she tells him he’ll never live up to some man she didn’t even much know?”
Scott shrugged his shoulders. “Women.”
Johnny shook his head again, then slapped his hat across a thigh and flung it to land near his saddle. “I’ve met some crazy women in my life, but that beats ‘em all!”
“Well,” Scott said, “at least everything turned out all right.”
“Not by a long shot it didn’t.” Johnny started pacing, his anger growing with every step. “That stupid girl ended up getting you nearly killed, Jelly tossed out of a wagon, the town shot up and our ranch torn to hell, and I had to kill a man.” Johnny voice rose as his fury peaked. “I killed a man yesterday. Remember? That ain’t ‘all right’ with me.”
“Johnny, I’m sorry,” Scott said. “I didn’t consider that. You’re right, of course. What she set in motion really wasn’t fair to a lot of people.”
“Don’t apologize for what she started,” Johnny snarled. He stopped his feverish pacing and took in a deep breath. “It’s me who’s sorry, Scott. You could’ve been killed because of my past. Having men hunt you down just because of your name ain’t really much to take pride in, it just comes with being good at your trade.” He finally found a reason to smile again. “I still ain’t exactly sure why you had to make ‘em believe you were Madrid, but I am mighty proud of you for living up to the test.”
“Did I?” Scott said, his eyes suddenly finding the view of the pond interesting.
“Yeah, you did. Don’t think I didn’t notice how Drago thought so, too. Wasn’t me he shook hands with when he left. It was you . . . Scott Lancer.”
Scott faced Johnny again, and managed a small smile of his own. “Yes. I guess it was me.”
“Guess?” Johnny moved a few steps closer. “That ain’t like you, Scott. I wasn’t there but for the end, so had to be you. Is that what all that arm wrestling was about? You think maybe you ain’t as good as Johnny Madrid? Or Johnny Lancer? You feel a need to best me now?” Johnny wasn’t so much angry at Scott, but wary and maybe even a bit worried.
“No,” Scott said, too quickly. He tossed the moist handkerchief onto the saddle blanket. “Maybe . . . maybe a little . . . last night. Not so much today. It was just . . . .” Scott went back to staring at the pond.
“What?” Johnny prodded. With Scott’s silence he went and sat beside him on his own saddle blanket. “Scott, whatever it is, I think we need to get it laid on the table today. I’m not gonna have my shadow hangin’ over you like it did Drago. Get it said, brother.”
Despite Johnny’s insistent invitation for the truth, still Scott hesitated, his answer hard fought for words. “Last night . . . I did seem a little confused by the whole experience. Between Drago and Violet, they really built you up to be bigger than life. Even Chapel was remarkably poetic while extolling the virtues of your reputation.”
“Tall tales,” Johnny scoffed, feeling defensive. “I’ve heard nonsense like that about Madrid before. Dime novel hogwash and nothin’ to take for truth.”
“On the contrary,” Scott said. “I actually found some of their praise quite believable. We’ve not really spoken much about your past . . . my past either, if I were to be honest. We should have had this conversation long ago, and I’m sorry we haven’t. I don’t think I ever truly considered what it takes for a man to become a gunfighter. Your renowned reputation aside, there’s a lot to admire about you, Johnny.”
Johnny was uncomfortable with the unexpected show of respect, and suddenly found his own view of the pond interesting.
“Now, on its own, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Scott added. “But, in case you hadn’t noticed, I have a bit of a competitive streak in me, too.”
Johnny laughed and it felt good, especially when Scott grinned back. “Yeah. I did kinda notice that. Like that first day we were here, and you took Barranca from me, fresh broke, and jumped him over that fence. I could tell right off you were a man to be reckoned with.”
“Yes. You do inspire the need to perform at one’s best.”
“Yeah, ‘one’s best,’ but not any better than. Right? Scott, I’ve spent most of my life having men think they needed to bring me down a notch, some of ‘em with a gun. I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder for you, too.”
“No. It won’t be like that, Johnny, ever,” Scott said emphatically. “I think we’ve learned enough about each other this past year to at least prove that we both have . . . how shall I say it . . . our own unique gifts.”
“You do have a way with words.”
Now it was Scott’s turn to release a hearty laugh. “Yes. I do. Do a lot of things well.”
Johnny let loose a hoot of his own. He felt settled for the first time that morning. Good at reading people, he thought Scott’s doubts had finally eased off, too. “Yeah, you do. You really do. Like cheatin’ at arm wrestling.”
“I – did – not – cheat,” Scott said with his tone measured but eyes wide-open and glinting in cunning response, as he comfortably picked up the gauntlet of Johnny’s lighthearted challenge. “You let yourself be distracted, while I concentrated on the engagement at hand. I simply employed proper field tactics, while you were undisciplined in your attack.”
“Undisciplined? I’ll have you know-”
Scott stretched out and let his head fall back onto his saddle. He lifted his hat and covered his eyes.
“Oh, what’s that?” Johnny asked. “Retreat?”
“From what?” Scott countered from under his hat. “War’s over, Johnny. You lost. Get used to it. I’m taking a nap. A well-deserved victory nap.”
Scott couldn’t see, so Johnny didn’t bother to hide the ear to ear grin he was having a hard time controlling. “Fine. You nap. Older men do need more sleep than their youngers.” Johnny stood. “Me, I’m gonna go fishing.”
Scott reached up and poked a single finger under the brim of his hat. It lifted just high enough so he could glare an eye upward at Johnny. “I’ve seen you ‘fish.’ Try catching them this time, not shooting their heads off. As you say,” he set his hat back down and relaxed, “I need my sleep.”
Johnny leaned over Scott and whispered, “That’s right, brother. You just sleep the day away. I’ll do all the work.” He turned to walk away.
“That’ll be the day,” Scott shot at his back.
Johnny stopped as his finest mischief-laden grin returned. He lifted the gun from his holster, pointed it at the sky, and placed a finger on the trigger. But better judgment got the best of him, and he simply holstered the gun. “Sleep away, brother,” he whispered to the wind. “Sleep away.”
The brothers rode into the hacienda courtyard under the fading evening sun. Murdoch opened the front door at their approach, and greeted them as they dismounted.
“Boys. How was your day?”
“Long,” Johnny said. He grabbed up the reins of both horses. “I’ll take care of these,” he said, loud enough for Murdoch to hear, and with a wink to Scott.
“How are the cattle settling in? How’s the spring grass?” Murdoch asked.
“Everything’s great. Just great,” Johnny heard Scott say as he walked away. “Ummm . . . the men are doing a good job and should be back in a few days.”
“Fine, fine,” Johnny heard Murdoch say, “But what about…”
“You know, Murdoch, I’m pretty sore from that long ride…” Scott started.
Johnny almost busted out laughing. It took all he could not to turn around to enjoy the performance, but he knew Scott was standing there holding onto his ribs like he was about to die.
“Never mind, son,” Murdoch said. “You should have never left the house anyway. Johnny could have managed the trip on his own. You go inside and rest before dinner. You’ll need…”
The drone of Murdoch’s continued fussing faded as Johnny neared the barn. “Scott Lancer,” he muttered, “ you are an excellent liar. And I am going to have to remember that.”
MP – December 2011
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