The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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CJ Smith

 

 

FThe Masters of Boston: Kensington

 

 

Johnny Lancer stretched his legs out in front of him and slouched further back into the old wooden chair. The roof overhead created a nice patch of shade, enhanced by the soft wind blowing across the boardwalk in front of him. Hands clasped lightly together over his gun belt, he cocked his head to one side and let his eyes wander down the street.

It was a quiet morning in Morro Coyo.  Not much happening in town and still early enough that there weren’t many people on the street.  Mr. Ebson was just unlocking the front door of the general store, sending out little Paco Escobar to start sweeping the walk out front.

It was still early enough that the late September sun hadn’t started to warm up the day. Comfortable, but with a promise of heat later on.

Yep, just about a perfect fall morning.

A soft scuff of boot on boardwalk drew Johnny’s eyes to his left, to where his brother Scott stood, leaning against the upright for the roof overhead, absently fingering the hat he held in his hands.  The older Lancer’s eyes never strayed from the route into town that the stagecoach would shortly take.

Yep, just about a perfect day, thought Johnny.  Except for whatever was bothering his brother.

It was two weeks ago that Scott received the wire from St. Louis.  An old friend from Boston unexpectedly found himself Sacramento-bound on business, and didn’t want to pass up an opportunity of seeing Scott again.  Scott hadn’t said much about him, other than his name, Kensington Masters, and that he’d known the older man since he was a child.

Two weeks ago was also the last time, by Johnny’s reckoning, that his brother had had a full night’s sleep.

Those first few days after the telegram arrived, Scott had merely seemed distracted.  When Johnny casually mentioned it, Scott laughed, looking a little embarrassed, and said he was just excited about seeing his friend.

By the end of the first week, though, Johnny realized that Scott was spending a whole lot of time by himself, riding fences or helping the hands search for signs of the cougar that had been plaguing them for the last month.  It wasn’t really unusual behavior, but for some reason Johnny found himself watching his brother more closely.

The second week, Johnny decided it was more than just a little nervous excitement.  Scott was starting to look a little haggard, which made no sense at all when he’d been excusing himself shortly after dinner each night, retiring hours before his usual bedtime.

Murdoch didn’t seem to notice any problem, distracted by the trouble with the mountain lion, but Teresa finally cornered Johnny and asked him what was going on.  All Johnny could do was shrug his shoulders. It was as much a mystery to him as it was to the young woman.

And then there was the night before last.  Johnny awoke, the full moon streaming in through his window, unsure of what had roused him.  He lay in his bed, eyes staring at the ceiling as he strained to hear the noise that had invaded his dreams.  A couple of minutes passed, and Johnny was just starting to think he’d imagined – or dreamed – it all, when he heard the horses in the near corral whinny.  Johnny then realized it had been Barranca’s neighing that had awakened him.

Rising, he heard the clock in the hall chime two as he pulled on his pants and grabbed a shirt.  He quietly made his way through the house to the study, then cautiously crossed to the large French doors.  Out next to the corral, the soft moonlight illuminated the figure of his brother standing next to the high fence.

Johnny opened the doors and slowly made his way across the yard.  As he drew closer, he saw that Scott was stroking Barranca’s forehead, but his face was turned toward the east, lost in thought.

“Should I be gettin’ jealous here?” Johnny asked softly, nodding toward the horse Scott so absentmindedly caressed.

Scott startled slightly, turning to squint through the muted light at his younger brother. He looked back at Barranca and smiled, shaking his head and chuckling.

“No... but he is a beautiful animal.”  Johnny had reached the corral fence, his horse snorting lightly in acknowledgment of his master’s arrival.  Johnny reached out a hand and rubbed the gelding’s muzzle.

“You know, there aren’t many palominos in Boston,” Scott said quietly.  Johnny cocked his head as he looked at his brother.  Scott’s shaggy hair was tousled, as if he’d just woken, his shirt unbuttoned, its tails waving in the late night breeze.  The moon had scuttled behind a cloud, so Johnny couldn’t see his face, but his brother’s tone of voice caused the younger man to frown.  Scott sounded... lost.  And the tone didn’t make any sense with the words he’d just spoken.

“So what’s got you out admiring horse flesh... at two in the morning?”

Scott smiled a tired smile. “Nothing.  Just couldn’t sleep.”

His eyes locked onto Johnny’s, and Johnny cursed the moon’s disappearance that prevented him from reading the emotion on his brother’s face.

“Been a lot of that lately,” Johnny said.  “Something worrying at ya?”

After what seemed an eternity, Scott sighed and replied, “No.”  He gave a rueful little laugh.  “We better turn in, though.  Murdoch will have our hides if we don’t get that fence up tomorrow morning.”

He started to turn for the house, but Johnny lightly grasped Scott’s arm and stopped his forward momentum.

“If you figure you need to talk about... whatever it is,” and Johnny’s tone suggested there was something to talk about, “you know where to find me.”

Scott didn’t say anything, but he squeezed Johnny’s hand where it rested on his arm, then quietly bade his brother ‘good-night’ and walked off toward the house.

Johnny stood, patting Barranca, watching his brother until he disappeared into the shadows of the porch.

They’d gotten the fence up, all right, but Johnny’s concern over his brother hadn’t lessened.  If anything, Scott looked even more tired than he had for the past two weeks.  The ride into town this morning had been quiet, with Scott driving the buggy and Johnny riding alongside.  Johnny didn’t want to pry, but he would sorely like to know what about this supposed friend’s visit had gotten his easy-going brother so worked up.

The noise of the stage approaching disrupted Johnny’s thoughts.  He stood and moved over next to Scott.  The older man plopped his hat on his head, pushing it back, then he stepped down into the street.

The driver’s partner, Jake, clambered down from his perch on top, dropping to the dusty street a few feet from where Scott stood.  He tipped his hat to the Lancers, then reached up and opened the door.  An older woman climbed down with Jake’s help, who then turned to tell the driver to toss down her bags.

Johnny watched as Scott broke into a huge smile.  The younger Lancer turned his attention to the stage.

There, standing in the doorway, stood a well-dressed Easterner.  Although covered in a thin layer of dust, the trail dirt couldn’t disguise an expensive suit and fawn-colored gloves.  He was a big man, tall and sturdy looking, with jet black hair that formed a widow’s peak over strong eyebrows, shading piercing blue eyes. He looked older than Scott by about five years, but he, too, had a bright smile on his face as he swung down from the stage and enveloped Scott in a big bear hug.

Amidst much back slapping and laughing, Johnny took a tentative step closer.

The older man now held Scott at arm’s length, looking him over as he would a prized possession.

“Scott, you’re looking well. This California weather seems to suit you.” Masters’ voice was deep and cultured, his smile displaying perfect white teeth.  But the smile held an odd note that Johnny couldn’t quite place.  And Johnny couldn’t understand what Masters’ saw in Scott’s face that he could possibly categorize as ‘well.’  Didn’t he see the dark circles under his brother’s eyes?

“Kensington, it’s been a long time,” Scott replied warmly.  He shook the older man’s hand, looking genuinely pleased to see him.  He suddenly remembered that Johnny was standing nearby.  “Kensington, this is my brother Johnny.  Johnny, Kensington Masters.”

Johnny stepped forward and offered his hand.  Masters clasped it in a firm handshake.

“So, you’re Johnny Madrid.”  Although he was smiling, Johnny couldn’t help but notice an underlying tone in Masters’ voice.  And it sounded a whole lot like disdain.

Scott, however, apparently noticed no such thing.  “Lancer, Kensington.  It’s Lancer now,” he explained, smiling at Johnny.

Masters raised an eyebrow and smiled again.  Johnny was beginning to really dislike that smile.

“Ah, yes...”  Before Kensington could continue, Jake came up and started to interrupt. Scott quickly intercepted him and started helping the stagecoach man unload Masters’ bags.  Kensington turned back to Johnny.   “I believe Harlan mentioned something about that.”

The mention of Scott’s grandfather did little to ease Johnny’s mind about the man in front of him.

“You know Garrett?” Johnny asked. He tried to keep his tone neutral.

“Why, my family’s known Scott’s family for generations.  Harlan Garrett and my father served in the Massachusetts House together.  They were accounting partners before that. In fact, I recently took over their practice and I have an eye on Harlan’s old seat in Congress.”

Johnny squinted up at the taller man.  A politician and a penny pusher?  Oh, great.

Scott walked up, slapping the dust from the luggage off his pants with his hat.  “We should get going.  Murdoch and Teresa are eager to meet you.”

Kensington smiled back at Scott and clapped a brotherly arm around his shoulders.  They walked off toward the buggy, Johnny slowly following after, wondering what had happened to his almost perfect day.

~ ~ L ~ ~

“Aah, Teresa. That was an exceptional meal.”  Kensington Masters sat back, dabbing at his lips with his napkin, his eyes twinkling as Teresa O’Brien blushed under the praise.  He nodded to Murdoch, who held a bottle of wine over Masters’ empty glass.

Johnny, at the other end of the table, also sat back, smiling at Teresa as she tried to minimize her contribution to dinner.

“Uh, uh, uh, young lady,” Kensington interrupted her kindly.  “Murdoch tells me you practically run that kitchen.  It must take a great deal of your time and efforts to make sure a house this size runs smoothly.  Take credit where credit is due, my dear.”

 

Johnny shook his head slightly.  Masters had been more than charming with Teresa, all evening long.  His affection for Murdoch’s young ward seemed sincere, and Teresa, for her part, seemed to be enjoying the attention.  She grinned at his jokes, sat fascinated as he described a recent trip to Europe, and laughed out loud when Kensington told them stories about Scott when he was a boy.

Scott, sitting to Johnny’s right, also seemed to be enjoying the conversation, joining in on occasion to add to the stories, occasionally correcting Kensington when Scott felt he’d exaggerated something for humorous effect.  This was met with good-hearted laughter on Kensington’s part.

As Masters continued to tell the Lancers about his trip, Johnny had to admit he might have been wrong about his first impressions of the older man.  He was articulate, intelligent, and exuded the type of confidence one would expect from a politician.  Johnny thought there was still something about the man that bothered him, he just couldn’t put his finger on it anymore.

Kensington had Teresa enthralled over his tales of his world travels, her eyes wide as he described the countryside and people of Greece and Italy, and she laughed as he compared their wine to that of southern France.

“... it’s a lovely vintage.  Grown near here, is it?” he asked Murdoch, casually swirling the wine around in his glass.

“Yes, not far from here, at all.” Murdoch, too, looked comfortable with Scott’s old friend. He’d been very pleased when Masters appeared to be well-informed about local politics and California statehood issues.

“This is quite a place you have here, Murdoch,” Masters was saying, nodding in approval as he looked around the large room.  “Reminds me of my aunt’s villa outside Naples.”

Johnny chuckled quietly at Teresa’s reaction to the word ‘villa.’ He looked over at Scott and stopped smiling.

Scott was staring at his plate, his face having paled slightly.  Johnny glanced down and noticed Scott had eaten very little of his dinner.   So it wasn’t just nervous anticipation of Kensington’s arrival – Masters was here and Scott was still looking like he’d jump if you said ‘boo!’  Johnny leaned forward to ask Scott if he was all right, when Scott suddenly looked up at Kensington and spoke.

“How is your... aunt,” he asked, hesitating slightly, almost as if he’d started to say something else.

Masters turned to their end of the table and smiled. It was the same smile that Johnny had found so disconcerting earlier at the stage depot.

“Why, she’s fine, Scott.  Absolutely loves Italy.  She’s formed new... attachments there,” and Johnny watched as the color rose in Scott’s face, “I’d be surprised if we can ever convince her to return to the states.”

Scott managed a smile and a nod, as Masters turned his attention back to Teresa and Murdoch, but Johnny had a feeling that he’d just missed something very important in the conversation.  But he hadn’t a clue of what that something was.

Hours later, Johnny stood at his bedroom window, half expecting to see a repeat of Scott’s late night visit to the corral.  But his brother never showed, his absence doing little to ease Johnny’s apprehension.

~ ~ L ~ ~

Johnny draped an arm across his saddle horn while using his other hand to push his hat back off his forehead.  A little before eleven, the morning sun was already promising to deliver another warm day.  His eyes scanned the valley floor below him, his lips twisting into a grin as he watched Scott and Kensington race across the field toward him.

Whatever had troubled Scott the night before seemed to have disappeared today. Bright and early this morning, Johnny came across him and Masters in the stables as they saddled horses for a tour of the ranch.  The two older men were joking and laughing when Johnny walked in.

“... the gun went off and Reynolds went flat on his... oh, good morning, Johnny,” Masters chuckled, exchanging a grin with Scott over whatever tale Johnny had just interrupted.

“Masters.  Scott.” Johnny noticed his brother looked relaxed, if not particularly well rested. The shadows that had been haunting the older Lancer’s eyes were still there, but Scott was smiling as he clapped a hand on his brother’s back.

“I’m going to give Kensington the silver-dollar tour of the place, but what say we meet up before noon and ride into Spanish Wells.  Show him a little of the local color, so to speak.”

Johnny laughed as he contemplated Masters.  He was having a real hard time picturing the politician sidled up to the bar at the cantina in town.  Glancing over at Scott, he got the feeling maybe Scott was thinking the same thing.  His blue-grey eyes danced with mischief.

Kensington would make quite a stir in town, all right.  He’d chosen a deep blue hunting jacket and a silver waistcoat for his morning ride. That, coupled with light tan riding breeches and knee-high black boots, he’d look quite a fine fish-out-of-water in the dusty cantina.

Johnny pursed his lips in an effort to avoid laughing out loud.  That was it. That was what had been bothering the younger Lancer about the man since he’d arrived the day before. Kensington Masters was everything he’d feared Scott would be when they first met.

Masters was cultured with a slight air of arrogance about him, his manner bordering on pompous but with enough charm to still make people feel comfortable around him. He’d had the same first impression of his brother, but Scott had quickly dispelled that feeling. Even discounting Scott’s efforts to protect him during the shoot-out with Day Pardee’s men, Johnny found himself looking at his new-found sibling with a fraternal emotion that both surprised and at times overwhelmed the younger Lancer, even to this day.

The objects of Johnny’s pondering rode up behind him, having come up the north trail to the lookout point above Lancer.  It was this sweeping vista that had first greeted the Lancer brothers, all those months ago, and one which Johnny never tired of enjoying.

Johnny drew up his reins a little, calming Barranca as the other two men joined them on the promontory. Scott’s face was flushed from the exertion of the ride, the circles under his eyes diminished, a big grin easing the threads of tension Johnny had been feeling for the last two weeks.

Scott reached over and playfully slapped Masters’ arm.

“Getting old, Kensington?” he laughed, which earned him a heart-felt chuckle from his friend.

“You know the lay of the land better than I, my friend.  I had you coming across that meadow.”  Kensington was trying to brush some of the dust from his expensive coat, a futile gesture considering how much of it now covered him.

He gave up on his grooming in frustration and settled back in his saddle to consider the view below him.  He let out a breath in a slow whistle.

“My... it is beautiful, Scott.  I see why you’ve stayed so long.”  He sat nodding, his eyes scanning the broad plain of Lancer below.

Scott and Johnny exchanged a smile.  “It’s home now, Kensington.  I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Scott added.

Kensington’s eyes made the route from the house south to the nearby hills, then around until they landed on Johnny.

He turned to Scott. “But it’s... it’s practically wilderness!”

Scott just laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far, but yes, it can be a little... wild.” Johnny snorted softly at the comment.

Masters was shaking his head now.  “Well, I somehow can’t imagine the Scott Lancer I know out here, so far from society.”  He sighed, and continued. “At least you’re fairly close to Sacramento, and I understand San Francisco isn’t that far beyond that.  I just don’t know how you can stand it... it’s so isolated.”  He stared at Scott expectantly.

“Oh, I don’t know...,” Scott’s eyes flickered over to Johnny, then back to Kensington, “...it kind of grows on you.”

Johnny looked away at the left-handed compliment, a smile twitching at his lips, his eyes straying to the south where he noticed several men clustered around the lip of an arroyo.  Looking up, he spied a vulture swooping through the air currents, keeping close to the activity below him.

Johnny reached over and tapped Scott’s arm, pointing to the ranch hands below. “Better go check that out.”

The three men made their way down the slope to the valley floor, and then picked up the pace to cross the distance to the arroyo.

Reining in, Johnny was off his horse before Barranca had come completely to a stop.  He greeted the men, joining them at the crest of the arroyo, Scott and Kensington coming up behind them, still mounted.

They could all see into the bottom of the dried out culvert, easily distinguishing what had caught the attention of the buzzard circling overhead.

The remains of a steer lay amidst the tall weeds, its hide clawed and chewed, leaving an unpalatable carcass that was drawing a swarm of flies as well as the carrion bird above.

Johnny slapped his thigh with his hat, a disgusted look on his face.

He looked up at the mounted men. “That’s the third one in the last month.  That cat’s beginning to rile me something awful.”

Kensington stood in his stirrups, trying to get a better look at the carnage below.  “Why don’t you just hunt him down?”

Scott answered as Johnny swung up into his saddle again. “We’ve tried – he’s a cagey one. Every time we get close, he manages to slip by us.”

Masters squinted his eyes at his old friend. “Hmmm... that doesn’t sound like the Scott I know.  Seems to me, I remember quite a good hunter. Or at least, our trips into Canada always proved productive.”

Scott smiled at the recollection, but Johnny spoke before he could comment.

“Well, I think I’ll head up into the hills tomorrow. Take some of the men and see if we can’t find him.  I’m gettin’ pretty tired of telling Murdoch we’re feeding some mountain lion all this good beef.”

“Yeah, Murdoch’s getting pretty tired of it, too,” Scott agreed. “We’ll...”

“...join you,” Kensington inserted. Both the Lancers looked at him in surprise.

Masters was grinning.  “What?  You don’t think I’d miss a chance to go hunting, do you?”

That was exactly what Johnny had been hoping.  Missing a few days of Kensington’s visit was all too appealing to the younger Lancer.  He’d get himself out of the way and let the two old friends catch up on old times. And maybe he’d get rid of the odd feeling he had every time he was around the older man.

Scott, for his part, looked just as disconcerted over Kensington’s suggestion, but he quickly covered up his expression of dismay with a skeptical smile.

“Kensington, ‘hunting’ out here is a little different than hunting in Canada.  We won’t have half a dozen men setting up camp for us.  We won’t even see anyone for days once we head up into those hills.  I...”

“Sounds even more entertaining,” Masters interjected.  “When do we leave?”

Johnny and Scott exchanged another apprehensive look, then shrugged almost in unison.

“We leave at first light,” Johnny answered.  He ignored the chill that danced up his neck as he looked down at the carcass again.

~ ~ L ~ ~

It took them two hours to find the first signs of the big cat, and another three to reach the hills where those tracks led.  It had gotten progressively warmer as they rode, the sun still capable of producing some serious heat, even this late in the fall.

 

They were climbing a steep path through scrub grass and oak trees, huge boulders interspersed in the dry vegetation, the area around them devoid of any signs of life.

Johnny rode point, being the most familiar with the territory.  Kensington followed a few yards behind him, proving himself to be a very astute tracker.  More than once, the big Easterner had been able to find the lost trail, consulting with Johnny on the most likely path the cougar would take from there.  Johnny found himself once again revising his opinion of the man, as Masters deferred to Johnny’s knowledge of the terrain, even though Kensington’s experience suggested a different route.

The fact that the younger Lancer was constantly reassessing his opinion was beginning to really exasperate Johnny. Couldn’t this fella just stick to being irritating so he could dislike him?

Scott brought up the rear, leading a pack horse laden with enough supplies to last them for several days.  Whenever the two men in the lead would start to debate their next move, Scott would laughingly remind Johnny that Kensington had taught the older brother everything he knew about hunting. His voice would be a mixture of admiration and confidence that left little room for Johnny to challenge.  And then Masters would accede to Johnny’s suggestion and Johnny would get frustrated all over again.

This had been going on for hours.

They stopped in the early afternoon to eat, the horses grazing next to a small creek that ran downhill to the valley floor miles behind them.  The breeze had kicked up a little, bringing a cool respite from the noonday heat.

Johnny sat on a rock eating a biscuit, watching as Scott and Kensington quietly discussed the hunt.  Scott would occasionally smile at a comment Masters made, but Johnny was too far away to be able to hear what they were saying.

The breeze stilled for a moment, but the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck prickled as he got the unmistakable impression he was being watched.  He scanned the surrounding area, taking in the growing number of sizable boulders that bordered the stream and the trail in front of them.  He stood, turning in a slow circle, his right hand straying to rest on the hilt of his gun.

Scott was laughing over something Kensington had just said when he noticed Johnny’s cautious movements.  He also stood.

“Johnny?” he called quietly, slowly crossing the ground separating them as he, too, scanned their surroundings.

“You get the feeling we’re not alone anymore?” his brother responded, his eyes still searching.

Masters joined the two Lancers, almost imperceptibly nodding his head.  “We should get moving. And keep an eye out.”

They packed up, eyes vigilant, and started up the trail.

As they climbed, the path became narrower, the boulders growing in size until they often blocked the sun from the riders below.

As if the sensation of being watched wasn’t bad enough, now the horses were starting to react, especially Kensington’s mount and the pack horse.  From time to time, they would skitter to the side, but Scott and Masters quickly controlled the nervous behavior.

The trail narrowed again, now barely wide enough for two horses to pass through side by side.  The hunters strung out, Johnny in the lead, his hand never far from his sidearm.

An unholy shriek rent the air, echoing down the passageway, as a shadow passed quickly overhead.  Johnny barely had time to draw his gun as the cougar leapt from one boulder to another, a mere five feet above Johnny’s head.  He drew and fired, hearing a satisfying grunt from the animal, when all hell broke loose behind him.

Kensington’s mount, already jumpy from the smell of mountain lion in the air, reared at the sound of Johnny’s shot so close to its ear.  Masters fought for control, the two of them staggering backward down the trail into Scott and the pack horse behind them.

Although Scott’s horse managed to keep its footing, the pack animal started bucking, its forelegs kicking with strength born of terror, forcing Scott’s mount forward toward Masters in an effort to avoid the dangerous hooves.

Johnny tried to turn Barranca to help, but the passage was too narrow for the frightened horse to navigate quickly. For a brief moment, as he watched, it looked like Scott would save the situation, his superior horsemanship winning out over the unsettled horse.  Then Masters’ horse careened into Scott, sending his mount up on its hind legs.  Scott hung on for two seconds, then tumbled back off the rear of the horse, hitting the ground hard right underneath the bucking pack horse.

He tried to scuttle back out of the way, but when he put his weight on his left hand, his arm collapsed out from under him.  He went down with the motion, rolling away and out from under the still-panicked horses.

With the sound of the retreating big cat’s wounded cry drifting down from the rocks overhead, Johnny calmed Barranca and dismounted. He snatched the reins of Scott’s skittish mount and worked at settling the horse.

Kensington had reached the pack animal, and with considerable personal exposure to kicking legs, finally brought the animal under control.  The two men standing, almost in unison, called out to Scott.

He was slow getting up, but up he got, brushing the dirt off himself as he stood.  He looked around in confusion for a moment, finally spying his hat lying halfway off the trail.  He started to scoop it up with his left hand, hesitated, then used his right to grab it and plop it on his head.  He let out a shaky breath as he considered the other two men.

“Everyone all right?” he asked, a smile tugging on his lips.

Johnny briefly shut his eyes, relieved that his brother hadn’t been hurt.  “Oh, yeah. We’re fine,” he drawled.  “You?”

Kensington had already closed the distance to the older Lancer, looking Scott up and down to ensure himself that his friend was all right.  When Scott grinned under the scrutiny, Masters slapped him on the shoulder and turned to reclaim his horse.

Johnny thought he heard Scott draw in a quick breath, almost as if he was in pain, but when Johnny turned around from fetching Barranca, his brother was already climbing back into the saddle, ready to resume the hunt.

“I think I hit him,” Johnny said, looking up the trail where the cat had disappeared, “so he ain’t gonna be happy.”  He turned and noticed with approval that Kensington had taken the pack horse’s reins from his brother, falling in behind Scott as they started up the trail once again.

But the mountain lion wasn’t the only unhappy participant in the recent fray – Johnny wasn’t very pleased, either.  In the midst of  the commotion with the horses, the cougar’s angry howl ringing in his ears, he had caught sight of Kensington Masters as Scott toppled from his horse.  For a split second, an expression had crossed the older man’s face that made Johnny’s stomach knot.

Masters had looked downright pleased.

~ ~ L ~ ~

An hour later, Johnny uncapped his canteen and took a healthy swig, squinting up at the afternoon sun and wishing for something with a little more kick to it than water.  They had finally come out from amidst the boulders, following a trail that wound among hundred-year-old oaks and an occasional pine. The cougar hadn’t slowed down much, even though it was obvious that Johnny had winged him during the altercation in the passageway.

Too bad that hadn’t been the only casualty.

They still rode in single file, with Scott on point and Kensington bringing up the rear with the pack horse, even though there was now room for them to ride two abreast. It provided Johnny with an unencumbered view of his brother.  And he didn’t like what he saw.

Johnny had always been rather impressed with the way Scott sat a horse.  There was something downright... elegant about it.  Perhaps not surprising, considering his time in Sheridan’s cavalry unit, but all the same, impressive.

There was little of the stylish cavalry officer in the way he was riding now.

Scott was hunched over ever so slightly, his left arm cradled in his lap, his head tilted to the same side as if trying to somehow cushion the motion of the horse below him by using his head as a counterweight. It didn’t appear to be working.

Johnny signaled to Kensington to take the lead, and waited until the older man had drawn ahead of them by several yards.  He nudged Barranca forward until he drew alongside of Scott, becoming even more concerned at the pinched look of pain he found on Scott’s face.

Scott glanced over at him – wincing – and nodded, but said nothing.  Johnny let out a disgusted breath of air and nodded toward his brother’s arm.

“How bad?” he asked quietly, looking up to see that Kensington had gotten quite a ways in front of them.

Scott started to dissemble, then he, too, let out a disgusted breath, too tired to argue.  “It’s pretty sore.”

“Arm?” Johnny asked, his attention back on his brother.

Scott started to shake his head and abruptly stopped; it was obviously a painful motion. “Shoulder,” he answered, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle.

“You break anything in there?”

“No,” Scott said, a little too quickly.  He caught Johnny’s skeptical look out of the corner of his eye and grimaced.  “At least, I don’t think so.”

They continued to ride, Johnny quickly becoming impatient when Scott didn’t add anything else to the conversation.  He looked at his brother and realized Scott was staring at the rider in front of them, a determined look on his face.  Johnny leaned toward his brother.

“We don’t have to be out here, you know.” His kept his voice low, not completely understanding what all Kensington Masters had to do with it, but knowing somehow the older man did have something to do with Scott’s sudden stubborn streak.

Scott swiveled his entire torso to lock eyes with his brother.  “I know that.”  He looked back toward Kensington.

Johnny snorted quietly under his breath, shaking his head in irritation. He waited until Scott was looking at him again. “You gonna tell me what’s really going on here?”

Scott opened his mouth, then shut it again, his eyes straying back to Masters.  He shut his eyes in pain, whether from his injury or something else entirely, Johnny couldn’t tell.  But when he opened them again, it looked like the older Lancer had come to some decision. Scott opened his mouth to speak when a call from Masters brought both of them up short.

“There’s another set of tracks now,” Kensington shouted, dismounting and ground-tying his horse as he waded through the tall grass at trailside.

The two brothers caught up with Masters and Johnny quickly dismounted to join him in his examination of the tracks.  There were, indeed, two sets, the cat they’d been following now accompanied by a set of slightly smaller paw prints.  Johnny stood and looked around, noting that the trail led west toward the barren hills nearby.  Hands on his hips, he blew out a breath of air.

“I don’t like to think about him pairing up with another cat.”

Kensington gave him a considered glance, then turned to Scott, who had remained mounted.

“What do you think, Scott?  Do we follow?  He’s covered a lot of ground since we first picked up his trail... I’d be surprised if they go all the way back to Lancer now.”  He dusted at his coat sleeve, then cocked an eyebrow.  “Shall we give it up?”  Although his tone was light, Johnny got the impression the older man had just issued a challenge to his brother.

Johnny watched as Scott surveyed the area, but he couldn’t help but think the cats weren’t the only thing Scott was considering at the moment.

“I don’t like leaving a wounded animal out here.  I say we go on.”  Johnny started to argue, but a look from his brother and he closed his mouth with an audible snap.  Shaking his head, he swung back up on Barranca, glared at Scott, then cast an even more lethal glower at Kensington.  He reached over and grabbed the pack animal’s reins from Masters and took the lead.  Scott and Kensington shared a perplexed look, then followed after Johnny.

Three hours later, with the sunlight waning, they decided to make camp.  Masters, demonstrating a surprising willingness to do the dirty work, volunteered to fix dinner and took off to fetch firewood.  Johnny immediately approached Scott, determined to have it out with his older sibling.

Scott stood next to his horse, his right hand on the saddle horn, his head resting on his upraised arm, looking for all the world as if he hadn’t an ounce of energy left in his entire body.

And maybe he didn’t.  Two weeks of restless sleep, followed by four hours of riding with a sore shoulder, added up to one exhausted Lancer.  As Johnny walked over to him, the younger man realized Scott was in no shape to start a lengthy conversation about Kensington Masters.

“Why don’t you let me get that saddle off for ya,” Johnny said quietly, trying not to startle Scott, who looked like he was half asleep.

Scott did jump slightly, wincing as the motion jostled his aching arm. He looked into Johnny’s concerned face.

“Thanks, little brother,” he said with a tired smile.  He clapped Johnny lightly on the side of the head, an affectionate gesture the younger man had become rather fond of.

Not too long after they ate, Scott crawled into his bedroll and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Masters turned in shortly afterward, leaving Johnny tending the fire and wondering about the relationship between the two sleeping men.

Scott almost acted as if he were trying to prove something to Kensington. Had Masters been some sort of father figure to Scott, while he was growing up?  Johnny snorted at the thought – he couldn’t imagine Harlan Garrett supplying that kind of attention and affection.

And if that had been their relationship, what was it now?  Most of the time, Masters looked genuinely pleased to be around Scott, almost proud of the older Lancer. Then there were those fleeting moments, like on the narrow trail, when Masters looked almost as if he... hated Scott.  It didn’t make any sense, and Johnny knew he’d have to corner his brother in order to discover exactly what was going on between the two.

Until he did, Johnny had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting much sleep.

~ ~ L ~ ~

But somehow, he did manage to fall asleep.  Hours later, he startled awake, instantly alert, drawing and cocking his gun and standing in one smooth motion. Between the moon and the dying campfire, the camp was illuminated fairly well, but it made seeing into the surrounding area all that more difficult.  He scanned the campsite, noting that both Kensington and Scott were still asleep on the other side of the fire. Scott shifted under his blanket, moaning softly at the movement.

Johnny uncocked his gun, figuring a similar sound must have been what woke him.  Then he heard the snarl.

“Scott.  Masters,” he called, his voice just above a whisper.  Kensington immediately sat up, but Scott only groaned again as he rolled onto his right side.

At Kensington’s raised eyebrow, Johnny pointed to the surrounding bush and raised a finger to his lips. A low growl sounded again nearby. He gestured toward Scott.  Masters quietly rose, drawing his pistol from its holster as he made his way over to the still sleeping man.  He reached over and gripped Scott by the shoulder to gently shake him awake.  It was his left shoulder.

Scott came awake with a cry.  Confused and in pain, he batted Kensington’s hands away and staggered to his feet, just as one of the cougars ran out of the long grass and jumped at Masters’ back.

Johnny rushed forward, but he had no clear shot of the cat without taking Kensington out with him.  Masters and the cougar fell into Scott, all three slamming into the ground in a jumble of arms, legs and fur.  The cat swiped at both men as he pinned Masters beneath him, raking Scott across the chest.  Then he twisted back around to sink his teeth into Kensington’s exposed neck.

Johnny’s pistol firing close by distracted the cat long enough for Masters to smack it in the head with his gun, then he raised both legs and booted the cat as hard as he could, sending it flying toward the campfire.  It hit, sending sparks flying and the cat yelping, turning to run from its own smoldering pelt when Johnny fired three more times.  The cougar collapsed to the ground dead.

As Masters struggled to his feet, Johnny ran to the cougar and kicked it once to make sure it wasn’t getting up anytime soon.  Then he crossed the remaining distance to Scott, who lay on the ground writhing in pain.

Johnny quickly knelt next to his brother to try to see what the damage was.  But Scott was shaking so hard, his arms crossed tightly across his chest, that Johnny couldn’t tell how badly he was hurt.

“Scott, let me take a look,” he said firmly.  He tried to move an arm, which was met with a long groan as Scott pulled his arms even tighter against him.

“Scott, you gotta let me see,” Johnny pleaded, frightened by his brother’s tear-streaked face.  “Take it easy.  Let me look,” he continued in a calm voice, finally seeing Scott make a visible effort to control his own pain.

Johnny gently pushed both arms out of the way, alarmed by the huge rent in Scott’s shirt and the blood that now spotted the light beige denim.  He pulled the shirt carefully away from the wounds, and let out a relieved breath.

The cat had gotten all four claws into Scott, scratching him from chest to belly, but only one of the wounds was very deep.  They were all bleeding, but even that didn’t look too serious.

“Well, we’ll need to clean ‘em real good – but it doesn’t look too bad,” he said, trying to sound reassuring.

“It’s not,” Scott agreed, gasping the words out as he continued to shake, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.  Johnny grew alarmed all over again.  “My shoulder... I think something broke.. when I fell...” He groaned loudly, his face turning an ashen grey in the dim firelight.

Johnny carefully peeled Scott’s shirt away from his left shoulder. Even in the poor light, he could easily see the mass of discoloration surrounding Scott’s collarbone, bruised from his earlier fall. But now, the entire area was swollen and Johnny had no doubt the bone underneath was broken.  Johnny sat back on his heels, feeling totally helpless as his brother continued to shiver.

Johnny looked up and caught Kensington standing close by, watching with an indecipherable expression on his face.  The urge to shoot the man was almost overwhelming.

“Get a blanket.” He turned his attention back to Scott.  “...and some water.”  When he heard no movement, he looked back up at Masters. “Now!”

Kensington shook himself once, as if suddenly remembering where he was, then quickly crossed the campsite to grab all the bedrolls.  He collected a canteen on the way back and joined Johnny next to Scott.

“Not much we can do for a break like that,” Johnny said, still trying to calm his brother as he tucked a blanket around Scott’s legs. “But we’ll need to clean out the cat marks.  And keep him warm.”

“I’ve got a flask of brandy in my saddlebag.  You can use that on the... claw marks,” Kensington offered, now sounding almost as shaken as Johnny.  “If you can get him settled down, then we can move him over closer to the fire.  It’ll be easier to dress the wounds.”

He stood and moved over to the fire ring, throwing more wood on to stoke the smoldering embers.

Johnny watched him for another minute, then turned his attention back to Scott. The older Lancer was still trembling, although not as badly.  But his eyes were still clenched shut, his face a ghostly contrast to the dark earth below him.  Johnny retrieved the canteen and angled a hand under his brother’s neck. Scott’s skin was cold and clammy to the touch.

“C’mon, take a drink,” Johnny urged, tilting Scott’s head to meet the canteen.  Scott was able to take a couple of sips, then moaned loudly as he started to shiver harder.  Johnny grabbed another blanket and carefully tucked it around Scott’s chest, not removing his hand from his brother’s neck.

“It’ll be all right, Scott.  You just hold on, you hear?”  Scott managed a nod, then turned his head away, his face a mask of pain, sweat starting to stipple his upper lip and forehead.

It took over an hour to clean out the deep scratches and bind Scott’s arm to his chest.  There was no way to set the broken bone; a doctor would have to see to the shoulder injury.  And he would have to see to it soon.

It was almost three in the morning when Scott finally drifted off into a fitful sleep, propped up against an overturned saddle, swathed in both his and Johnny’s bedrolls.

Johnny had helped Kensington clean out his own claw marks, none of which were deep enough to warrant much concern. Not that Johnny could have manufactured a whole lot of concern for the older man at that moment.

Masters looked worried about Scott, but not nearly enough to suit Johnny’s taste. It was all the younger man could do to not grab Kensington by the throat and demand to know what was going on between him and Scott.  But he was too worried about his brother and disturbing whatever sleep the injured man could get to chance a confrontation with Masters now.

So Johnny sat near his brother, keeping one eye on Scott and the other one on the look-out for the remaining cougar.  If he’d had three, the third would have been watching Masters.

Not an hour later, after Kensington had fallen asleep, Johnny got the sensation of being watched again.  This time, however, it was Scott he found staring at him.

“You okay?” Johnny asked. He started to rise to help Scott sit up, but his brother waved him off.

He watched as Scott awkwardly raised himself up one-handed, grimacing as the movement pulled on both the claw marks and the injured shoulder.

He finally settled back, half-reclining against the saddle. His eyes slid shut as he lay there, panting a little from the effort.

Johnny got up and poured a cup of coffee, then squatted next to Scott, offering the dark brew to him.  He wished they hadn’t had to use all of the brandy to clean the claw marks. But they had.

“If you can’t sleep, might as well get warmed up.”

Scott took the cup gratefully, awkwardly maneuvering himself up so he could take a sip, then closing his eyes again.

Johnny waited a couple of minutes, then returned to his previous spot and sat down.  He quietly asked, “So who’s Rory?”

Scott’s eyes flew open as he turned toward his brother, a bewildered expression on his face.

“You called that name a couple times... a little while ago,” Johnny explained, almost sorry that he’d said anything, judging by the anguished look his brother gave him.

Then Scott closed his eyes briefly, sighing deeply.  He took a moment to gather himself, then he looked back at Johnny.

“Rory... Aurora... is Kensington’s sister.”

And with those few words, Johnny knew that this was the root of all Scott’s distress over the last two weeks.  Funny, how often a fella can trace his troubles to a woman.

“She must be about your age now,” Scott continued, his voice hushed in the late night air.

“Sounds like it’s been a while since you saw her.”

Scott eyes dipped to the ground.  “Almost a lifetime,” he whispered.  He chuckled, but it was a rueful laugh, devoid of humor.  “We all practically grew up together.  Their father, Alexander Masters, and Harlan were good friends.  We spent a lot of time together.  Ror... Aurora... while she was growing up?  All skin and bones... gangly little thing.  But when I came home from the war...”

“Not so gangly anymore?” Johnny supplied, grinning in spite of himself.

“Not hardly,” Scott agreed, also smiling.  He shifted, the smile quickly leaving his face.  “When I was finally released from the prison camp, I wasn’t in real great shape.  On the train home, I got... became very ill.”  Scott paused, and would have been even more disconcerted if he had looked up at his brother.

Johnny paled at the comment.  During the debacle with Dan Cassidy, Johnny hadn’t given a lot of thought to Scott’s stint in prison.  Afterward, however, he’d tried to get Scott to talk about it, but his brother had been characteristically close-mouthed about the experience, no doubt trying to save his brother the anguish of hearing about such a horrific episode from his military life.

“Kensington and Aurora came to visit, that first day after I came home,” Scott continued.  “Then Aurora came back every day after.  I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I do remember her voice... she’d read to me, or tell me about what was happening in town.  It was like she was giving me something to hold on to... to come back to...”

Scott’s voice dwindled away to nothing. He was staring into the fire, lost in a memory.

“Sounds like she was pretty special,” Johnny suggested.

Scott glanced at Kensington, who was still, apparently, asleep, then looked back at Johnny.  “There was a time when I very much wanted Aurora Masters to be my wife.”

Johnny shouldn’t have been surprised, but he still started slightly at the disclosure.  Then he frowned.

“Just how many gals you been engaged to, brother?” There was just a trace of humor in his tone.

Scott smiled in reply.  “Just one.”  He looked at Johnny. “Just Julie Denison.” He frowned, too. “But if I was being honest with myself?  I’d admit my engagement to Julie was a result of Aurora leaving.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side. “She go to Italy?” he guessed.

Scott smiled again.  “Yeah... with her aunt.”  He paused again, deep in reflection.  “Once I’d recovered, we used to go riding every Sunday.  We... had a... disagreement one day.”  He frowned again.  “But I thought we were okay.”  His face softened at the memory, and then blanched with remembered pain.  “The next week, I went to pick her up.  She’d left for Naples the day before.”

Johnny didn’t say anything – he couldn’t figure out anything to offer that would even remotely help.  “Must have been some argument,” he commented.  When Scott didn’t respond, Johnny’s eyes strayed to Kensington, asleep not twenty feet from them.

“What’s he got to do with all this?” he asked.

Scott also looked at the sleeping man.  “I’m not sure.  I saw him occasionally afterward, but he was... I don’t know... different.  He never said anything about the... the incident, but I knew...”

Kensington chose that moment to shift in his bedroll, rolling so that he now faced the two brothers.  For some reason, both Lancers stopped talking, the Easterner’s position now too intrusive to continue their conversation.

Johnny looked over at his brother again, dismayed to see the pale face, lined with pain, his eyes dark shadows against the pallor of his skin.

“You need some rest, brother,” he said quietly.  He paused for just a moment, then got up and crossed over to Scott, kneeling at his side.  He gently jockeyed Scott so he was laying on his back, and tucked the blankets around him tighter. He then very lightly cuffed his brother’s head.  “Go to sleep.”

Scott frowned, a faint grin tugging at his lips, and closed his eyes.

Johnny sat down next to him. It was a long time before he was able to go to sleep again.

~ ~ L ~ ~

The morning light revealed more than the countryside.

The claw marks on Scott’s chest looked all right, a little puffy but not bad. His shoulder, however, was another matter entirely. The whole area was now swollen from neck to upper arm, dark bruises mottling the tight skin. As Johnny tried to pull a clean shirt over the makeshift bandages, Scott came close to passing out from the pain.  As it was, by the time Johnny was through re-binding the arm to his chest, Scott was breathing heavily and sweating, sitting cross-legged on the ground, lost in his agony.

Johnny stood and moved over to where Kensington was saddling the horses.

“I don’t think he can ride like that,” Masters said quietly.

Johnny squinted through the early morning sunlight at the other man. “Well, he can’t stay here.  Break like that? Coulda done all kinds of damage to his arm.  It needs to be set by a doctor.  You see a doctor anywhere around here?”

Kensington swallowed as if trying to control his temper. “I’m merely suggesting that moving him may do more harm than good.”

Johnny glared at the older man.  He knew this was not the time for this conversation, but he couldn’t help himself.

“And what’s it to you?” he practically spit out, purposefully keeping his voice as low as possible.  “I saw you when he fell off that horse.  You looked downright tickled to see him take that tumble.  What are you doing here, Masters?  Scott thinks you’re a friend of his, but I wonder about that... what the hell you got against my brother?”

Kensington’s eyes darted to where Scott sat, then back to Johnny.  Whatever concern he might have had over Scott’s injuries quickly bled away from his face, leaving a cold, hard expression behind that almost made Johnny take a step back.  Almost.

“Your brother... defiled my sister.  For all his protestations last night about wanting Aurora for his wife,” and Johnny didn’t miss the fact that Masters had been listening to their conversation earlier, “the fact remains that he... he ruined a young girl’s life. Irreparably.”

“Is that what she told you?” came softly from behind Johnny.

Both men turned to see Scott standing not ten feet away.  He didn’t look very steady on his feet, his right arm cradling his injured left, but it was his face that caused Johnny the most alarm.

It wasn’t the fact that it was paler than Johnny had ever seen it.  Or even the hair plastered on his forehead from pain-induced sweat.  It was the look of panic and betrayal in those blue-grey eyes that frightened his brother and caused Johnny to take two steps toward him.

Scott waved him off, closing the distance between him and Masters.

“Is that what she told you?” Scott repeated, his voice harsh and unyielding.

Masters drew himself up to his full height, almost sneering down at the younger man. “Oh, don’t worry, Scott.  She protected you.  She said you were a perfect gentleman.” He took a step closer to Scott. “She said nothing happened.  But she said it with tears streaming down her face, so upset she could barely speak.  You broke her heart.  How could you take advantage of her?”  He took another step.  “How could you do that to her... she was barely sixteen!”  He took another step and reached up to grab Scott’s shirt.

Johnny quickly stepped between the men, batting Kensington’s hands away before they could touch his brother.  He cast a quick glance at Scott and was alarmed to see his brother had started shaking again.

“She told you nothing happened because nothing did happen!” Scott said through gritted teeth.  He tried to push Johnny out of the way, but the younger Lancer stood his ground, providing a barrier between the two angry men. “I would never hurt Rory. Never.”

Masters also tried to move Johnny, but he caught a look in the dark-haired man’s eyes that made him think twice about challenging him.  He locked eyes with Scott over Johnny’s shoulder.

“Hurt her?  You crushed her.  I had to send her away.  I had to save her... if she’d stayed, I don’t know what she would have done...”

Johnny waited for Scott to reply, but there was only silence behind him.  He waited another minute, then turned, fearing Scott had succumbed to his injuries and fainted dead away.

Instead, his brother was standing very still behind him, eyes wide, looking as if he’d just been sucker-punched.

“You sent her away?” Scott whispered.  Masters didn’t respond.  “You sent her away?”

Masters started to bluster.  “I had to!  I had to protect her...”

Scott started to laugh, but choked on the first sound.  He practically leaned over his brother’s shoulder, his face mere inches from Kensington’s.  “But she wrote that letter...”

Kensington did laugh, a loud, bitter bark.  “She wrote exactly what I told her to write.”

Scott took a step backward, then another.  Now Johnny was really worried, for his brother appeared to have completely lost his mind.  Scott started to laugh for real, a genuine amazed chuckle that left him almost breathless.

“You?  You sent her... You told her to write...  My god, Kensington.  I don’t know how to thank you...  and all this time I thought...”

And Scott did, indeed, look as if the weight of the world had been removed from his shoulders.  But then his face darkened, and his hand strayed to his holstered gun.

“But how could you have thought I’d do... something like that?”  He pushed up against Johnny, forcing his brother a step closer to Masters.  “We grew up together. You knew me better than that.  Why?  And why the hell are you here now?”

With sudden clarity, Johnny Lancer knew.

“It’s because she’s coming home, isn’t it?” he supplied quietly.  Masters, for his part, looked as if he’d been slapped.

Johnny felt Scott’s right hand on his arm.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  You knew if she were back in the states, that she’d find out the truth...”

“The truth!” Kensington sputtered.  “The truth?  I told her the truth.  I wrote to her and told her how you became engaged to that Denison woman, not two months after Aurora left.  How you then broke off that engagement, only to gallivant all over Boston with every trollop...”

This time Johnny couldn’t keep the two apart. Scott lunged past his brother, banging his bad shoulder against Johnny as he grabbed for Masters’ jacket.  The delayed reaction to the pain shooting up his arm caused Scott to stumble, allowing Kensington to get in one good punch before Johnny shoved the older man away.

In a blur of pain and frustration, Scott staggered backward and then took one step, drawing his gun and pointing it at Masters.

“Scott!  NO!” Johnny shouted.

Masters looked as if he would draw his own pistol, but Scott violently shook his head at him.  He took another step closer.

“Scott,” Johnny said quietly, trying to get through to his brother. “Don’t do this...”

Johnny took a step closer.

“Scott!” came out harsher than he’d planned, but it seemed to finally get through to his brother, who came to a halt a mere three feet from Masters.  Scott’s gun hand was shaking so badly that Johnny was surprised he was able to hold on to the firearm. “I don’t think you’re up to this right now,”  Johnny briefly glared at Kensington, “and I know he ain’t worth it.”

Scott swayed again, and Johnny quickly slipped a supporting hand to the small of his brother’s back.  His eyes grew wide as he felt his brother trembling with exhaustion.

“You’re right,” Scott whispered, slowly holstering his gun, his eyes never leaving Kensington’s face.  He stood still for a minute, then shook his head and with an aggravated “But then again...” swung his arm around and caught Masters full on the chin with a surprisingly powerful right hook, sending the older man staggering back.  Kensington tried to keep his balance, but ended up tripping over his own feet, hitting the dirt hard and with much less dignity than he would have wished.

Johnny drew his pistol and aimed it squarely between Masters’ eyes. “I’d stay down if I were you,” he cautioned, his voice soft but unmistakably deadly.  “Throw your gun over here.”

Masters slowly complied, all the fight ebbing out of him. Johnny picked up the gun and tucked it into his belt, sparing Kensington one more glare before turning his attention back to Scott.  What he saw dropped him to his brother’s side in an instant.

The impromptu fisticuffs had cost Scott dearly.  He lay in the dirt, his face contorted in pain.  The punch that dropped Masters had also propelled Scott to the ground. Too tired and too weak to catch himself, he’d smashed into the dirt on his left side, with more force than the weakened bone in his shoulder could stand. As Johnny moved Scott’s shirt aside, he could clearly see a ragged edge now straining against the skin covering it – it wouldn’t take much for it to break through altogether. Johnny didn’t even want to think about how much that had to hurt.  Or the complications if the bone broke through.

“Okay, Scott,” he murmured.  “That’s enough.  It’s over.”  He carefully gathered his brother into his arms and held tight.  He called over his shoulder to Kensington.

“It’s over, Masters.  Get the horses ready.  We’re going home.”  He then bent his head low so only Scott could hear his next words.  “We’re going home, Scott. It’s gonna be okay.”

~ ~ L ~ ~

The ride home was far from okay.

Unwilling to chance his weakened brother taking another fall from his horse, Johnny chose to ride double with him on Barranca.  He didn’t particularly like Masters coming along, but Johnny didn’t have a lot of choice.  Kensington, for his part, seemed to have withdrawn into himself and said little during their ride.

It was a good thing, too, because Johnny didn’t need the distraction – keeping Scott atop the horse was challenging enough.  Only an hour into the ride, Scott lapsed into a sort of semi-conscious state, rousing when the path became more difficult to traverse, deathly quiet when the trail was easier to navigate.  Johnny knew his brother was reacting to the changes of the rider behind him; Johnny held on tighter as Barranca made his way through the more uneven terrain.  There wasn’t any way for Johnny to avoid coming into contact with Scott’s injured arm, nor the claw marks that spanned his chest, as he fought to keep his brother upright in the saddle.

They stopped twice, both times when Johnny felt that Scott had ridden about as far as he could stand.  Both times, Masters helped Johnny get Scott off the horse and guide him to the side of the trail, where Scott would lay, exhausted, eyes tightly shut against the pain.

The second time, once Scott had drifted into an uneasy sleep, Johnny walked over to where Masters waited near the horses.

Johnny stared at him, his right hand resting on his pistol, completely baffled by the mercurial moods the older man exhibited.  When Kensington said nothing, Johnny sighed and looked out over the trail.

“Why’d you come all the way out here?” he asked quietly, not really expecting an answer.

And, for several minutes, he got none.

Then Kensington spoke, just as quietly.  “I had to see him.”

When he didn’t continue, Johnny asked, “You plan on killing him?”

“No,” Kensington answered quickly, a slightly insulted note in his reply. “My mother is dying... the doctors don’t expect her to live to see the new year.  She asked me to send for Aurora.”  His eyes roamed over the nearby countryside, coming to rest finally on Scott on the other side of the trail, who was now sound asleep.  “Unlike Harlan Garrett, I had no such confidence that Scott would be reluctant to return to Boston, especially if he should find out Aurora had returned.  I came to make sure he would stay in California.”

Johnny held back an angry comment; knowing Harlan was involved, even if in a minor role as consultant, irked Johnny to no end.  Almost as much as the thought of Scott leaving Lancer because of this girl.  And what about this girl?

“You know, Masters, there’s something I still don’t understand about all this,” he said, pausing to sort through his thoughts.  “Why are you so worried about Scott meeting up with your sister?  It’s been, what?  Five, almost six years since they saw each other?  What makes you so all-fired sure their getting together is going to be such a problem?”

Kensington stared at him, eyes as cold as a December morning.  Johnny could almost see the thoughts running through the man’s head...

“Or is it you don’t think there’d be a problem?” Johnny said slowly.  The look on Masters’ face confirmed the notion that was now taking form in the younger man’s head. Johnny smirked.  “That’s it, ain’t it?”  Johnny took a couple of steps away and then turned back to stand directly in front of Kensington. Although Masters towered over the shorter man, Kensington still took a step back. “You just don’t want ‘em together, period. Why?  ‘fraid Scott will bring her out here?  Away from you?”  He could see Masters clenching and unclenching his jaw.  “So why’d you send her halfway ‘round the world?  Just to keep her away from my brother?”  He took another step forward.   “You jealous of Scott?”

Masters’ jaw wasn’t the only thing he was clenching now.  His hands were tightly fisted at his sides, his breath coming in a ragged wheeze.  He shut his eyes once, then spun around and stalked over to his horse.  Halfway there he stopped, taking a big breath and slowly letting it out.  Without turning, he said, “He isn’t good enough for her.  This insane trip to help a father he never knew.  Giving up everything Harlan had to offer him... for what?  A bunch of sage bushes and a few cows?”

Johnny stood there, a hand on one hip, shaking his head.  “Masters?  I get the feeling no man’d be good enough for Rory, ‘cording to you.”  He almost smiled as Kensington flinched at his sister’s nickname – he’d figured the man never used it himself.

Kensington Masters didn’t say another word for the remainder of the trip.

~ ~ L ~ ~

A week later, one o’clock in the morning found Johnny in the kitchen at Lancer, unsure of what was keeping him from sleep, but just as sure that sleep indeed would not come.  He peeked into jars and opened tins, but it wasn’t food – or a lack thereof – that was keeping him awake.

He stood in the middle of the room, his shirt unbuttoned and his shirttails hanging, staring into the remainders of that day’s cooking fire, now faint embers in the open oven pit.  Then he heard Barranca softly neigh.  He walked over to the windows and was surprised to see a lone figure out by the corral. Sighing, he stepped outside.

The nights were starting to cool down, and Johnny shivered slightly at the feel of the cool breeze against his bare chest.  He crossed the yard, boots crunching on gravel, until he stood within a few feet of his brother.

Scott was absently stroking Barranca’s muzzle with his right hand, his left arm securely pinned to his chest by a thick swath of bandages.  It had taken the doctor hours to set Scott’s collarbone, a painful procedure that Johnny did not want to experience again, even as an onlooker, anytime soon.  For two days afterward, Scott fought a fever that sapped his already compromised strength, until he finally showed signs of recovering.  It was then, shortly after the doctor declared him out of danger, that word reached the ranch that Kensington Masters had left Spanish Wells for Sacramento.  He had never returned to Lancer.

“You sure you don’t got something to tell me about you and my horse?” Johnny said, his voice low and playful.

Scott simply dipped his head to one side, laughing softly at the joke.

Johnny waited, a little surprised when Scott didn’t say anything.  “So,” Johnny continued, “couldn’t sleep?”

Scott finally turned around, but the night was too dark for Johnny to be able to see his face.  He heard his brother sigh.  “More like couldn’t sleep any more,” Scott said.  When the fever finally broke, he’d slept almost constantly, his body finally given a chance to mend.  And, although he was much better, he was still far from well.  Johnny very much wanted to get Scott back inside, out of the late night breeze.

Before he could comment, though, Scott chuckled again.  “Remember when I said there weren’t many palominos in Boston?”  Johnny nodded, not knowing if Scott could even see the gesture in the dark.  “Rory had a palomino.  Most stubborn horse you ever did see. But it suited her.  She was quite the horsewoman.”

Johnny smiled at the proud tone in Scott’s voice.  “So what are you going to do now?  About Rory,” Johnny added unnecessarily.

It was quiet for a moment.  The wind was kicking up, sending minute shivers down Johnny’s back.  He looked at his brother, thinking that Scott had no business being out in the cold night air.

“I don’t know,” Scott said, his soft voice catching on the breeze.  “It’s been such a long time...”  He turned, facing Johnny, and even though Johnny couldn’t really see him, he somehow knew the exact expression Scott had on his face. “...I’m not sure I have the right to dredge up the past with her.”

Johnny now stood within a few inches of Scott, the proximity lending an air of brotherly intimacy to their conversation.  “From what I’ve heard?  Sounds like you owe it to her...”  He lightly clapped Scott on the back of the neck and gently propelled him back toward the house.  “ …‘cause she sounds like quite a woman.”

Scott started walking, matching him step for step.  “That she is, brother.  That she is...”

 

~end~

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