The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb

 

 

FWHN: Warburton's Edge

An episode tag for Warburton's Edge
A/N: A few swear words but nothing you won't find on the television, and probably a 'harder' Johnny than what I usually write. It would be best if you've seen the episode Warburton's Edge before reading.

The green smell of valley seeping through a gap in the barn's window greeted Scott, along with Johnny's prickly silence, hidden behind a span of leather saddle and hank of Barranca's mane. His brother was in a rush to leave, yet no real reason for the hurry. Murdoch hadn't given orders. They'd both been at the table when their father sifted through the newspaper over his morning cup of coffee, murmuring something about stock in Allenville. So yes, no hurry. Because Harvey Mitchell's cows would still be there a day from now. Yet Johnny snapped up the chore like a dog eyeing a meaty bone.

The trail was known to Scott, both the dusty, rutted one that pointed northeast to the Mitchell ranch, and the more insidious one Johnny seemed to be on.

First, the trip to Sacramento to file the injunction then the mess at Lancer with Warburton, and Murdoch coming close to getting killed. Now to look at stock in another county. He'd almost forgotten which room his bed was located in, perhaps he should set up in the stables, just roll out of bed and onto a horse and go.

He understood what Murdoch was doing with the cattle—diversifying in a low market was always good strategy—and with Johnny, too. The trip to Allenville had all the earmarks of trying to get said son off Lancer for a period of time.

Yet Johnny's silence was hard for Scott to endure. Nothing so unusual about a long pause, not where his brother was concerned, but this one was poisonous somehow, because of what had gone on before.

The flat valley land fled by at a gallop, nothing moving but them.

"You had to fire." Scott cajoled, tried to sound reasonable. Reasonable sometimes worked with Johnny. "Isham would have killed you or Murdoch, or both."

Johnny wasn't going to go for that, though, not today. Not after he had told Scott what Isham had said: 'Johnny boy wouldn't side against his own kind.' His own kind. Those few words had stuck burr tight to his brother, as if it posed a dichotomy between the Johnny before Lancer and the Johnny now.

They shared a quick look, and Scott knew that was all the attention his brother was going to give him, because Scott could have looking and he could have talking, but not at the same time usually. Johnny's eyes were back to the road, mouth chewing anger like a stampede string. "Why'd he do it?"

"He did it because of who he was." Scott flicked his reins, thought about it some more. "You're not Isham, brother, no matter how hard you try to fit yourself into that square."

Johnny flinched.

#####

Shoulda kept that Isham shit to himself, Johnny thought. But he was sick of keeping things to himself, could barely hold it all in, and then he was slamming the door shut and walking out of the hacienda to the barn in a hurry to get away. He felt a need to ride, and to keep going, like that would make things better.

Inside Allenville's one hotel, the room was exactly as he imagined it from outside: shabby and cheap. Perfect, he just wanted an empty room. "Scott, you should…" Yeah, like he should be giving advice to anyone.

Scott blinked once, eyes squinting as though the lamp on the table was too bright. He looked dead on his feet after looking at all those cows at Mitchell's and a quick café meal. But he nodded, willing to take the advice.

Johnny glanced at his pocket watch, and shook his head. Wasn't particularly late, but sleep was its own way of gettin' through things. Scott looked like he could sleep his way through an explosion. Johnny's lips twitched. Maybe they'd get a chance to see if that was true.

Scott dropped into the bed with a muffled groan of sleepy pleasure. Johnny shoved the saddlebags to one side of the table and went to his own bed, bounced his hand along the mattress. Pretty soft for a hotel like this, the blanket didn't have too many holes, either. By the time he looked up again, Scott was fast asleep.

He stared at the light head against the reasonably white pillowcase and found he was biting the inside of his mouth, hard. Well, he wasn't going to stay here and watch Scott sleep. Even he knew that wasn't a good idea.

Slipping on his jacket, he checked that his pistol was fully loaded, and buckled it carefully on his hip. Took a knife from the saddle bags, and tucked it into his boot. A precaution was all. He grabbed his brother's holster that was draped over the back of the chair and slid the heavy Colt next to Scott's pillow. It wasn't unusual, no matter what his brother thought. It was called bein' ready.

He stepped to the door and out.

He tried the saloon first, because he thought he wanted some company. The bar was usually a good place for him and his smile. A round of cards, win a few dollars, figure out which girl he might want to take upstairs. A quick wrestle in bed was all the distraction he wanted.

But not even that, he discovered.

Opportunity was not the problem: one brunette, one blonde, both real fetching in that barroom way, the prettier one hung off a cowboy who was too drunk to be too flustered. Her hand rested on the man's thigh as she stood too close to his chair. Johnny wanted the cowboy to notice, wanted that more than he wanted the girl. He didn't really want the woman, he wanted to fight. More precisely, he wanted to hit something so bad he ached all over and he hadn't had so much alcohol that he failed to recognize what a bad place a saloon was when this mood struck.

To be honest, though, he'd never really been in this exact mood before, so he didn't quite know what to make of it.

What was it Scott called about workin' with Warburton? A noble plan. So he decided to cut his losses. Said goodbye to the regretful brunette and the attentive blonde. He leaned over the pock-marked counter and talked quietly to the bartender for a few minutes.

There was nothin' easier to find than some private backroom poker in a town this size. He walked out of the Crystal Palace, leaving the piano squawking an out-of-tune rendition of Sweet Betsey. The surrounding stores were dark, but it was a pretend city compared to San Francisco or San Diego. Everything quiet and sleepy. Stepping down hard, he made his spurs jangle so it didn't seem so alone.

His turn-off point as described by the bartender was a whitewashed sign advertising a new railroad depot at Modesto. The alley he was looking for jagged off to the right. A huge man, long billy club hugging his hip, stood guard before the door like it opened to his sister's bedroom. But he took one long look at the holster on Johnny's thigh, gave a quick shrug—a bullet beat a piece of wood any day of the week—and moved aside.

The hard bite of tequila and a good game, not too high of standards, were they? The thought came to him that Johnny Lancer should have better ones, but he shrugged it away and opened the door.

The room was lit up as if coal oil was free, and a man at the side of the table gave him a thorough once-over as soon as he was through the door, the overhead bell signaling his arrival.

Johnny glanced back as it closed behind him. The bartender had said the game was made up of travelers tonight and that he'd probably be welcome. The dealer was wearing cotton tick, two scratchy holes in the elbow. Poor farmer, stuck in a back alley past midnight, with a mealy shirt and tired eyes. Probably forking out cards to make a little extra grubstake, he would take home a piece of the pot if the game was lucky enough. From the gold band around his left finger, maybe he had a wife to provide for.

Two others were hard core, right down to the pistols on their hips. The third was a drummer and coming up last, was a serious-looking cowboy.

"Lookin' for a game to pass the time," he said to the room. "The bartender told me there was a good one here."

He had to stand still for a minute, amazed at how fast the flush of excitement washed over him. There was a mirror against the wall, one of those curved expensive ones, on a base of pure mahogany. He stopped a moment, spared a glance at his reflection.

He was fine, he told himself.

It was seven card draw, and though he wasn't fussy about cards, he realized he didn't have a whole lot of cash in his wallet, either. Should've hit Scott up before leaving the hotel. Only then there'd be two of them, because tired or not, Scott would've followed.

He brought out enough of what he had to make a show of intent. A five dollar banknote. Three one-dollar bills. Some coins that rattled around in his front pocket. He was counting quarters when the cowboy beside him slapped down his cards. Johnny didn't pay any attention, not until he heard, "You thievin' bastard!"

Hell. He just wanted to play a game of cards.

Two guns popped up, one held at an awkward angle, a clumsy grip that would probably take off a few fingers if it was actually fired, and the other held low and easy by the tall man with a fancy striped vest. Looked like he knew how to use it, too. Johnny could wait them out. He'd be the only one because the drummer's eyes cocked back in his head and his body did a slow slide down his chair to the floor. The smart cowboy was already being helpful by emptying his own pockets out to the table.

"You alone?" one of the robbers drawled, a southern accent turned it to an invitation and made the hold-up sound like a barn social.

Then Johnny thought about the question. Dios. He got up from his chair, held his arms away from his sides. "Does it look like I got anybody with me?" The guard outside was probably in on the whole thing. He wasn't exactly busting down the door trying to get in.

Johnny didn't much care.

"Keep them where we can see 'em!" the short one shouted, excited.

"Give' em the pile," Johnny hissed to the farmer, who was whey pale and looked like he was going to be sick.

Fancy pulled back his revolver's hammer with a loud click.

"Give him what you've got," Johnny continued, voice soft, falling into persuasion.

The farmer shook his head.

"Give him what you got, or I'll come over there and get it myself."

"You!" Shorty again. Johnny could see a downy moustache above crooked teeth. A kid, out looking to make a name. "Put your gun on the table."

Johnny did as he was told and turned to Fancy, glanced down at his Army Remington. It was a mistake, to pay that much attention, because the man gave him a look and swung his gun around, knowing where the threat really lay.

Shorty was behind the dealer now, stuffing dollars into his pocket. A few more seconds and this would be over.

Fancy spoke, "Your gun? It's mine now." Huh. Ambitious bastard. Johnny didn't look at him, but stared at Shorty because the fool had put his pistol on the table beside the dealer so he'd have both hands to scoop up coinage.

"That gun right there?" Johnny exchanged the question for an extra few seconds as he shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet.

"Yeah, that one. You can give me your coat, too," Fancy said, and smiled.

Slowly, he lowered his hands and his eyes, because the man had already recognized a murderous look and Johnny didn't want to give him any extra warning. He leaned back like he was just shrugging out of his coat, but instead grabbed his pistol from the pile and swung it into Fancy's face like it was a brick, breaking his nose with a fantastic crack, not stopping until the butt found teeth.

He would have broken fingers on a punch like that, but the gun took it and then some. With his other hand, Johnny grabbed Fancy's weapon from a now loose grip, slid it across the floor where it bounced off the drummer's chest and spun under the spindles of a far chair.

Fancy was bent over, blood pouring between his empty fingers. Then Johnny brought up his knee, the hard cap smashing into the man's face, sending him flying backwards.

Only then did he spare a glance to Shorty, who stood hypnotized behind the dealer, mouth open. Do it, Johnny thought, not real sure whether he had said it out loud. His eyes darted to Shorty's gun, a million miles away on the table.

Shorty was stupid enough to make a sudden grab for the gun, and Johnny shook his head in irritation, whipped out his revolver and aimed. The boy stopped cold, eyes landing on his partner bleeding on the floor, then to the gun on the table.

Johnny didn't say anything, surprised he had no clear idea of what he wanted to happen.

The dealer started screaming and dropped to the floor with a shriek.

At that moment, Johnny felt a hand curl around his ankle and the room tilted sideways when he fell to his side. Fancy got to his knees. Earlier that evening Johnny had wanted to hit something and here was a something, just lurching into his line of fire.

Everything slowed and he saw what he needed to do as though he'd been given a written list of orders. This time, he did it with his fists, landed blows so fast and hard that he didn't actually feel the impact until his whole right hand flared with cold pain, then flattened to a peculiar numbness, kind of like what had settled over him since Isham died.

When his hand twanged, Johnny started in with his foot, the kick found purchase, shin singing with effort. As soon as he was sure Fancy wasn't getting up again, he picked up his pistol, tucked it into his holster, and turned to find Shorty pointing a gun at him.

The barrel of the gun shivered in the man's grip, then he lowered it, and Johnny was on him. First, he grabbed the kid's gun and slammed it on the table, wanted it out the way so a stray bullet didn't blow an inconvenient hole in him.

Excitement, that's what he told himself, but it wasn't that. He didn't know the name of what this was. Because Johnny had control of the situation now, and he didn't have to do what he did next. But he did it anyway.

He didn't let up until Shorty was grunting in pain, ribs cracked, blood everywhere, his face raw as a barbeque butchering. Johnny's knuckles dripped blood, and he wasn't able to feel much of anything.

The whimpers of the farmer snuck through Johnny's heavy breathing. He reached down to help him up.

Johnny stepped over Shorty and skirted the blood that surrounded Fancy. "I'm gonna take my money, that's all," he huffed out and took his five dollars and the ones, searching around until he found the coins. He nodded to the farmer and the cowboy on his way out, then didn't think about anything for a long while until he found himself standing in front of the motel with a bottle of tequila.

He made his way up the stairs and into the room.

The cool water felt damn good, and since it was the first thing to feel good in some time, Johnny let it run over his hand until the jug gave up the last of it. When it did, he set it down too close to the basin, hoping the tinny clink wouldn't wake Scott.

He was glad there wasn't a mirror in the room, at least he couldn't see his reflection here. His knuckles had stopped bleeding, and he didn't think that he'd actually broken anything. They hurt something awful, though. Should've stuck to guns, handy and lethal and…he stopped himself, did a hard swallow. He'd just beaten two men, no way around it. He sat beside the chipped basin, scrubbed his fingertips through his hair.

From the looks sniped his way since he told his brother about Isham, Johnny knew Scott wondered about it. And so did Johnny really, even though he'd drive himself crazy if he thought about it too long. Like Isham, all he ever wanted was to be good at his trade, take pride. Well, he'd done it. Although the pride felt tarnished a long time before he made it to Lancer. There was always a weight to being Johnny Madrid and it wasn't something he could ignore. He was only alive on account of what he did in the past—the things he did and how well he did them.

Soft snores from across the room caught his attention. His pocket watch read 3:03, which was the middle of the night in any town, and he still had most of the tequila.

He wasn't that man in the backroom poker game—what had happened there was rage, pure and simple. Now it had vanished, and in its wake this awful tiredness. Madrid—like Isham—was gone, this was where the river was going now. With Scott and Murdoch.

Johnny Lancer lifted the bottle in salute. It was gonna be a long ride home tomorrow.

#####

The sun came in through the shutters, each slit of light illuminating the dead flies on the sill. After various trips together over the last few months, Scott was almost getting used to waking up half the time with Johnny nowhere to be found. The bed beside him was empty, not even turned down. His head hurt from lack of sleep, a pounding desperate ache in no way alleviated by the fact he knew, more or less, where Johnny was. His brother had cut a willing swath through most of the female population from Morro Coyo to Spanish Wells, and now here, just outside of Allenville, home to the Crystal Palace, the Mitchell ranch and not much else.

This hearty set of conquests was not exactly 'nothing new', as Johnny had casually tossed out one morning, when he'd appeared looking not really rested, but sated. Scott knew that Johnny had his moments—and they were legion—but it all pointed to the incident with Warburton.

It hid things, this relentless behavior, but there was no way in God's green earth Scott was going to call Johnny on it. Part of the problem was that Johnny had time on his hands. It had been one week since they'd buried Warburton and said goodbye to Tallie. Johnny wasn't good with free time. Easy enough to recognize now that he knew more about his brother.

If he didn't get breakfast soon, his stomach was going to eat itself, he thought, rubbing his belly. No, not rubbing. Scratching. The clothes on his back were the same ones he'd been wearing yesterday; he hadn't unpacked anything. He shuddered, guessing at the fugitives hitching a ride with his things.

He heaved out a sigh and threw back the blanket.

A wan-looking drummer brushed his elbow as Scott exited the café. Across the road—not even really a road, but it divided the town into halves—stood two barmaids outside the saloon: a frowsy blond and a genteel-looking brunette. He closed his eyes, felt a blast of sun find his face. Nothing to get excited about, the town was calm, and so was Scott, only prodded from his half-asleep itchy reverie when he caught the tail end of jangling spurs.

"Scott, you ready to go?" And that was all Johnny had to say.

Bad news was always heralded by vicious weather wasn't it? Scott looked up and found the sun a lemon-colored ball high in the sky. So he thought that was a good omen, but then he slid his glance to Barranca. Johnny slouched, eyes half closed, hands slack against the pommel, one bandaged because he'd caught it in the Crystal's swinging door.

That was the story he played out anyhow. Did Johnny think he was an imbecile? Scott guessed bar brawl, hoped he was right. Hard not to notice Johnny had wanted out of town before he ate breakfast and short of a yelling match, Scott wasn't going to get anywhere poking that wound. So he'd accepted Johnny's ridiculous story with a grimace and a returned sunny smile.

It was a childish thought, but he wished by the time they reached Lancer the world would have righted itself. Looking at the storms crossing Johnny's face, he didn't hold much hope.

 

 

Chapter Two

Ozone was heavy in the air. It tickled the back of Murdoch's neck as more rain threatened. He stopped outside the barn surprised to see Johnny back early from the creek—by himself. And that wasn't normal.

But what about Johnny had been approaching normal this last week? Or since he and Scott had come home from Allenville? Or since saying goodbye to the girl, Tallie? Things hadn't been the same since Johnny had pulled on the façade of Madrid, and had infiltrated the Warburton camp. Murdoch shut down his thoughts right there, just threw them away like a spent rifle into a scabbard. So, no, it wasn't normal that Johnny was sitting on a hay bale staring at the barn ceiling with nothing to prompt it. Murdoch looked up to see if there was anything about the wooden beams that ought to concern him, but nothing was out of the ordinary—except his son.

"Hello," he said, and Johnny raised a hand in wan greeting, but didn't otherwise stir. It was getting close to three o'clock, and Murdoch needed to get to town. "Did you finish at Tio Creek?" He'd left both his sons this morning in the barn, preparing to wage war on bits of flotsam and debris left over from the last big rain. Johnny's trousers were wet to the knees and swatches of mud creased his shirt. Surely these were signs of ranching.

Yet no matter how many chores his son did, he could see Johnny becoming unraveled like Maria's disastrous attempt at mending one of Scott's sweaters. That was what was so upsetting. He set the banking papers on a side bench. It was Friday and he was running out of time, in every sense of the word.

Maybe if he just asked the boy, but he didn't believe, not for a second, that would work. It was too easy and when had anything been remotely easy?

He moved to the shuttered window. Reaching over, he propped open the wooden cover. Johnny recoiled at the light like someone had just lifted up his rock.

"Did the creek get finished today?" he asked again, trying hard not to sound angry.

Johnny rubbed his eyelids with the tips of his fingers. "No." The word was barked out. "Well, almost." He dropped his hands to his lap and looked over at Murdoch blearily. "What answer do you want?"

Murdoch grimaced, determined not to react to the insolence. "I'm going to town, how about riding with me?"

Johnny nodded in agreement, rose from the bale, and smacked the dirt from his shirt. Then his attention landed on the stack of papers Murdoch had brought in, his eyes narrowing. He stood beside the bench, laid one hand on them, then thumbed through them, mouth tight.

"These the receipts for Warburton's cattle?" From bored and sleepy to all thorns, just like that.

Murdoch swallowed and stepped closer. He knew what Johnny was asking, of course. He handed him a letter, made out to the Green River Bank and Trust.

Johnny read it end to end, not a word spoken, then nodded. "So you're going through with it, sending the money for Tallie's schooling." His words had the same sound as a knife being drawn from a hard leather sheath.

"I said I would."

Johnny shrugged like he didn't care, and cast around for a bridle. "Yeah, you did say as much to Warburton, didn't you?" He finally looked at Murdoch, blank as canvas but not nearly as pliable. "I'll take it to the bank. Send the telegrams."

"Listen, Johnny," and Murdoch ended up sighing.

"What? Think I can't handle a bank transaction or sending a letter?"

That was actually the trouble, how Johnny was handling things, particularly himself. "With Sexton Joe and Isham dead, what if part of Warburton's crew is still in town? They would know and it wouldn't be easy for you to handle, right?"

As soon as he said it, Johnny spun away as though he'd been shot from an angle, but not before Murdoch saw his face. Johnny rolled the receipts into a tube and tapped his thigh with it. "Too old to be coddled, Murdoch."

He sounded calm, but Murdoch couldn't see his son's eyes, so he had no idea what was whirring away in there. It was like Johnny had swallowed a match and Murdoch had to watch it burn him from the inside out.

"You can be both, you know."

Johnny did look at him then, eyes hollowed out, weary.t

"You remember this, I'm smart enough to figure out that Madrid is part and parcel. I can't accept he future if I don't accept the past. So whatever happens, you remember that."

Looking away, Johnny blanched.

"I'm hoping you know this, too," Murdoch said, his tone softer now, designed to get some kind of reaction.

Johnny's face screwed up and he tossed the papers back on the bench. "What?"

"I want you, the whole of you." Though it was like stuffing birdseed back into a bag, Murdoch gathered his anger and wasn't surprised that it was so linked together—the anger and the son and the gunfighting—into one hard knot. Part of it, he knew, was guilt for never finding one lone boy in a teeming border town so many years ago.

Johnny stood still, his face utterly calm.

"What happened in Allenville?" Murdoch asked.

At first, Johnny looked puzzled, not understanding what was said, as if Murdoch had suddenly lapsed into another language. Johnny blinked once, and opened his mouth. "What'd you…?" A hint of a smile teased, like he was reaching for a story.

"Your hand was bandaged, your knuckles bruised, after the trip to Mitchell's. As if you'd been in a fight."

"You ask Scott?" Short, to the point. His walls went up fast.

"I haven't and won't, not when you can tell me just as well."

"Well, go ahead, ask me again," Johnny shot back, and Murdoch could see how anger was swirling within his son. It had him frozen up like a hard winter.

"You're out of control, Johnny. You know it. I know it." A clap of thunder punctuated his words and made them seem harsher. Raindrops thunked one after the other against the roof.

Johnny shook his head like it was a joke, like he could somehow let it slide off his back if he shrugged hard enough. He laughed low in his throat. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"I don't? I saw your face when you pulled the trigger against Isham. It was like killing yourself." But his son knew that already.

Johnny turned around, contained, but burning down where he thought Murdoch couldn't see. Like the water that moved so fast across a rock table you couldn't tell it was in motion until it fell from the edge.

"I'm not making excuses for what I did, a week ago or a month ago or years ago, Murdoch."

"And I'm not asking you to. You tell me you were good at gun-fighting that tells me you accepted it somewhere along the way." He broke away with an explosion of breath. Murdoch could feel his hands tremble. Maybe from the struggle of not giving in to his own anger, but he didn't think so. At one time he underestimated Johnny, and it was a mistake that would never be repeated. "What changed?"

"Murdoch, you don't know what you're asking."

"I have a pretty good idea, I brought you here didn't I? You're working from dawn to dusk, so you don't have to think about it, and that's fine. But you're not taking this on alone."

Almost a flinch, a skittish horse shying away from its shadow.

"What changed?" Johnny's laugh was clipped, bitter. "Everythin', Murdoch. You, Scott, the ranch, just everything. Right around the time we all signed that piece of paper at the lawyer's office. I'm tied." He gave a shrug. "You asked me for an answer the night Isham died—Madrid or Lancer—and I gave it to you. I'm not goin' back now." Johnny glanced up and Murdoch braced himself. "No apologies."

"I don't want any," Murdoch said finally, able to draw out what was there. "But you don't have to choose. Not for me, not for Lancer."

Quiet closed in and they listened to the rain for a moment. "Shouldn't wait too long for town, the road'll be slick," Johnny murmured and Murdoch wondered if that was for his sake, or John's. It occurred to him that maybe it was for Johnny's sake, that he wanted to cut this short. Seeing it all laid out was too much, it needed to be doled out in small doses.

Confronting Johnny with his past was a hard thing for Murdoch to do, but Johnny was looking back into that world, and no good could come of it. His son had made a decision, then and now. Making it was one thing, living with it was another.

"Come on," Murdoch said. "Let's go."

They tacked their horses and trotted away from Lancer, into a fine mist of rain from laden clouds. Johnny looked ahead, not back at the teeming corrals, or bustling house, eyes set to the mountain range in the west, lost in thought, far away for all that Murdoch could have reached out and touched him.

If there was one thing he had learned from the whole Warburton fiasco, it was that he wanted his son—Madrid and Lancer—worse than anything else in the world, because he saw things in Johnny. Saw that he was good and whole and not needing to be fixed. Not at all.

 

 

~end~
11/12/15

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