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Cindy

 

 

FChanging Directions

Author’s Notes:  This is one of three “gift stories” coordinated among a little group of Lancer fans by good friend Chris Witherspoon.  Chris passed away unexpectedly last fall.  Those of us who knew her still miss her sunny spirit and love of Lancer, and especially her love of Wayne Maunder.  As this would have been Chris’ birthday month, this story is rededicated to her. 

The recipient of this gift story was asked to provide some “wish list” items she desired in a story.  She accordingly indicated that she would like a story set early at Lancer that featured both brothers and did not contain any marriage or death.  She also requested that Scott somehow help Johnny, although not necessarily in a physical sense.  Finally, she requested that the name Winthrop be included in the story.

This story was first published in the October 2006 Boston Homecoming Zine produced by Yucca Flower Press.  Thanks, AJ!

Special thanks to Sharon for her script of ‘Chasing a Wild Horse.’

******************

ONE

“You’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”

That declaration, issued so matter-of-fact from Scott’s lips, still kept appearing in Johnny’s mind.

“You won’t even leave a small ripple.  It’s the only good thing that’s ever happened to you in your whole life and you’re going to get up and walk away from it.  And all for nothing.  But I guess that’s all you’ve got going for you from now on.”

Maybe it had been a challenge, maybe not.  Hard to tell with Scott; his newfound brother, Johnny had discovered, had a good poker face.  There hadn’t been any plea to return to the ranch, no desperation in his brother’s tone.  Just those words, those damned calculating words, somehow urging him to reconsider his decision.  He could have kept going after Wes died and the horse was tamed, just ridden south as planned with his freedom intact. Wes would surely have approved of that.  As for not leaving a ripple, well, there was an odd strength in that, and one he’d tried to hang onto.  It meant he didn’t have to care – about his life or his death, or that of others.  He didn’t have to consider feelings or consequences or responsibility.  It meant he could keep things from growing permanent. Any mistakes would be his own, thank you very much.

But he hadn’t ridden away.  He’d turned around and ridden back to the ranch to face his father, to admit he was wrong and to ask for another chance.  Big brother had kicked little brother’s rear end, and Johnny Lancer moved.  Lancer, not Madrid, he reminded himself now as he waded a little ways downstream to tug at a stubborn collection of brush.  And it was Johnny Lancer working in this muddy creek alongside his reticent brother.  Madrid had all but disappeared on this warm afternoon.

So he was back, working under a peace offering of sorts made by his father. Surprising that the old man was suddenly so willing to let work drop to chase after another band of horses.  At first Johnny thought it was just Murdoch’s way of apologizing.  But then he’d wondered what had changed Murdoch’s mind when his father had been so adamant about chores and jobs and times.  And then he wondered if his brother had anything to do with Murdoch’s change of tune. Well, for now his father was going to let him try his hand at developing a line of equine stock.  <<That’d be more than a ripple,>> Johnny said silently to his brother’s back.

“Shoulder still bothering you?” he asked instead, just to get the build up of thoughts out of his head.  The bullet wound had been light and Scott hadn’t even commented over it.  But Johnny still felt an onrush of guilt whenever he thought about it, like now.  He’d been the one to bring the trouble with the Strykers right up to the hacienda door, and Scott had been shot for it.  All because Johnny Madrid was lounging about in town with Wes, trying to shake off what had been Johnny Lancer.  And then Scott had appeared and Madrid hadn’t played too well against him – well, maybe that was because it was Johnny Lancer trying to do the talking through Madrid.  And in the end it had been Johnny Lancer who had returned home, dragging Madrid’s shadow with him.  Dragging it ever since, it seemed.

Scott straightened from where he’d been clearing some brush.  “It’s fine,” he replied, his tone inviting no further discussion.  He took a few breaths as he gazed about, then wiped his sweaty cheek on an arm and bent forward again to pull at the detritus brought down river by the spring rains, the very creek that Johnny had told him about while they’d had that “visit” in town. They’d been at the project for almost a week as Johnny had predicted.  Today they had brought a crew for the last of it in order to finish up before the weekend, even provisioned themselves for an overnight stay, if necessary.

That whole business with Stryker crowded back into Johnny’s mind, quickly filling it again.  He’d returned to the ranch, shut his mouth and did his job, but yet he sensed Scott and Murdoch were watching him, waiting for him to find another reason to bolt.  To give up and walk away, to decide that he was better as Madrid than Lancer.  They hadn’t said anything to him, but he felt it in their halted conversations when he tramped into the room, in their careful dinner discussions.  Even the vaqueros watched him; he felt their eyes on him as they worked together.  Just waiting for him to fail.  Scott in particular hadn’t said much to him in the three weeks since the incident.  Johnny had made a clumsy attempt to apologize for that bullet just as soon as the Strykers were out of the yard, and cursed the resulting lack of sincerity his regret seemed to display.  But Scott had just waved him off with some remark about family business and didn’t say anything more about it.  Made it sound so easy when it wasn’t.  Getting shot, especially if it wasn’t deserved, gave a man plenty of reason to lay blame.

Scott’s silence made the back of Johnny’s neck itch even now.  <<Guilty,>> whispered a voice around to his ears.  <<Guilty…>>

He shook it off, concentrated instead on the lean figure beside him.  Confident Boston, efficient sort of man, maybe too efficient.  Natural sort of leader – the vaqueros certainly seemed to like him, respect him even.  Oh, a few hands had pressed him, played a few jokes on him but he never got too ruffled about it.  He’d even laid a trap or two in friendly retaliation.  Pretty quick with his tongue but he wasn’t much for displaying his fists.  Until yesterday, anyway.  Not that Winthrop was a good hand – he wasn’t.  He dawdled, complained, slowed down when the work got too physical.  Sort of like Wes.  Yesterday Winthrop had laughed when Scott gave out the day’s assignment, told Scott he wasn’t going to dig postholes.  Johnny thought of other holes the shiftless bastard could dig, but this was Scott’s situation and so he remained silent.  Scott had only smiled in that way of his, the way Johnny had seen that day just before the right cross tumbled him down the riverbank.  And then Scott had let fly that fist again.  Winthrop sat down hard and shook his head in surprise, his face reddening to the guffaws of those watching.

“You’re fired,” Scott had told the man.  “Get your gear and clear out.”

Then Boston straightened his clothes, eyed each man remaining – Johnny included – and walked away.  And the rest of them went to work, leaving Johnny to scowl at his brother’s retreating back and struggle with his own grudging admiration for the man.  Not that he wouldn’t have helped if Scott truly needed it, but so far his brother needed very little help with anything.  Scott was a better worker, better leader, helluva rider, and so far he hadn’t missed a call to breakfast.  Hadn’t fumbled over any task inside or outside the house, except maybe for his initial choice of clothing. But he’d quickly fixed that.  Hell, he even got shot better than everyone else.  Got patched up and just kept working.  Made it all look so easy. 

Efficient Boston.  Johnny scowled.  He rarely compared himself to others as a man.  He knew what he was capable of as a gunfighter, and judged others by his own skill.  But he could not apply his experience to his brother, and that was disconcerting enough to make him feel threatened.  And he didn’t like that sort of feeling at all.  Generally Madrid took over at that point, but for now there was nothing for Madrid to take on.  And if this was the result of trading Johnny Madrid for Johnny Lancer then maybe it wasn’t worth it.  It was easier when he wasn’t thinking of permanence, wasn’t chewing on notions of staying.  He could leave anytime, Johnny told himself.  Anytime at all.

The thickening silence felt like a cold shadow looming between them.  Scott sure wasn’t showing much of himself these days.  Oh, Johnny knew some about his brother – Scott’s actions said he was a good and fair man, hard at times, but honest.  He was kind to Teresa and Maria, gave Murdoch a good amount of respect, but hadn’t said much to his new brother since the shooting.  Not that they had to like each other.  Blood didn’t mean much after a lifetime apart.  It took time to get to know a man, to trust him.  Johnny wasn’t sure just how much he knew or trusted the man now beside him. 

There was too much in his head again, and it was seeping down into his limbs, making them quiver.  He had to move, say something, do something. Madrid’s shadow materialized beside him in the heat.  <<Ask him, will you?>> he complained.  <<Be done with it – not that you don’t already know.>>

“What you said that day in the saloon,” Johnny said to Scott, grabbing at another twisted branch and flinging it behind him.  “I guess you don’t think much of me, huh?”

Scott turned to face him, one brow raised quizzically. Then he bent to task again.  “On the contrary,” he replied, gloved hands tugging at a rotted branch.  “I think – a lot – about you.”  The wood worked free and he stopped again to issue a shrug, his stare direct.  “I don’t believe you give yourself much credit, Brother.”

Was that a compliment or an insult? “Well, in my experience,” Johnny began in a lazy tone to cover up his uncertainty, “a man doesn’t get too far by showing off his pride.”

“Really,” Scott commented. He swiped at a trickle of sweat working near his eye.  “Then what do you call standing before another man with a gun in your hand?”

“I’m not embarrassed by that,” Johnny shot back.  Compliment, hell.  Dammit, why did he even start this conversation? Madrid smiled and quickly retreated, leaving Johnny suddenly very exposed.  “You were a soldier-boy, weren’t you?” Johnny continued.  “Didn’t you do the same thing – stand before another man with a gun in your hand?”

“Yes,” came the even reply; Scott glanced briefly down and nodded.  “I did something similar.”

He didn’t say the rest of it; the part that Johnny was sure was there.  <<But I didn’t take any pride in it.>>  And why wouldn’t he be proud?  His side won, didn’t they?  If he did the job then he should be glad of it, proud of it.  He’d killed the enemy, bought victory. 

<<I was good at my trade,>> Johnny reminded himself, giving an armful of muddy brush a savage tug.  Had to be, to survive.  Only now that wasn’t his trade anymore. Now he was…a ranch hand.  Trying to be a good one, a useful one, someone reliable, depended on.  Trying to shove Johnny Madrid out of the way and call upon this other part of him rarely used – Johnny Lancer.  A man with a family and a home, a regular job with regular pay.  And a need to measure up in his brother’s eyes.

 

TWO

He did think – a lot – about his brother.

Scott leaned back against the rock where he’d taken his break and worked the pill down with a swig of water from his canteen, but knew it was no use.  He’d waited too long, and by nightfall the fever of the ague would be evident.  Damn the timing.  Damn the War, he amended to himself. 

He watched Johnny standing awkwardly by himself, scuffing the dirt and clenching his fists.  That aura of hesitancy about his brother tugged at Scott.  Johnny had ridden in a loner, distrustful but confident.  Now he seemed to have traded that for loneliness and uncertainty, wanting to stay but unsure how to make the change of direction in his life complete.  And wondering, Scott guessed, whether it was all worth it.  From what Scott had seen, Johnny Madrid Lancer was a good man, passionate and proud, stubborn but loyal to what he believed in.  A good man to know.  That’s why Scott had lobbied so hard to keep his brother from leaving with Wes.  He hated to see his brother give up so easily, hated to see Johnny miss the opportunity to gain what was rightfully his.  He liked Johnny, truly liked the man. 

Scott sighed to himself.  The comment about pride had been unintentional and he shouldn’t have let it slip, wouldn’t have if he’d been well.  Too caustic, a friend had once told him, and that was without any illness – or alcohol – in him.  He supposed his sarcastic bent was more pronounced since the War, and the end of his experience with it.  Not many knew of that last year spent nowhere near a conventional battlefield, yet still in battle – for survival. 

He took another drink of water then capped the canteen.  The first hard shivers of the ague went through him.  He straightened his jacket and then shook them off.  The malaria had killed several, many of those already weakened by typhoid and dysentery.  He’d shivered and sweated endlessly until the prison physician had grudgingly passed out quinine tablets.  He’d only had one other relapse, about a year after his return home, whereupon his grandfather had insisted he kept a supply of pills with him.  Scott now gave his grandfather a long-neglected thank-you; the medicine might just be enough to get him home tomorrow still upright.  And he had a flask of whiskey stowed deep in his saddle bags as an additional aid, if necessary.

He again studied his brother, dark and muscled, wary and always ready – for something.  Now Johnny was also simmering with an anger that was looking for an excuse to erupt.  The other side of him – Madrid – had been in plentiful attendance these past three weeks, causing Johnny to alternate between temper and sulkiness as he worked to reconcile the two. If truth were told, Scott would rather have both sides of Johnny, Lancer and Madrid, beside him in a firefight.  But not this seething mix of a stranger working beside him today.  Scott didn’t want to admit that he was sick of Johnny’s brood, but he was.  He had enough to do without double-guessing what Johnny was fishing for – it seemed his brother used skepticism for every word or action.  Maybe Murdoch had seen something that Scott hadn’t about Johnny.  Maybe Johnny really didn’t belong here.

“Dammit,” he said aloud, not wanting to believe that.

He wished that Johnny would get over his guilt or fear or whatever it was that was gnawing at him and find a place for that shadow that walked beside him.  Just get it off his chest and be done with it, even if that meant being on the receiving end of his brother’s blow-up.  Though Scott had to admit to himself that he was not well enough to weather any sort altercation if it came soon.  And this would surely be the time Johnny would turn on him; men like Johnny could sense weakness of any kind in a man, and use it to an advantage. And just what would they be fighting for?  Johnny’s war was with himself, and Scott refused to be at blame for any of his brother’s misguided ideas about whether he should return to his past.  He’d gone to town and sought out little brother, hadn’t he?  Told him in so many words to admit his mistake and get on home where he belonged.  And Johnny had come home, finished his job with the Strykers, worked up a truce with their hardheaded father and stayed on.  But there was a new distance between them and it had to do with that shooting, the one that no one blamed Johnny for, but that the young man seemed to expect.  And as the weeks passed, Johnny had become more and more conflicted. Might be worth that fight, Scott thought to himself, to rediscover that part of his brother he had quickly come to know.

The crew was eyeing him, waiting for orders, though Johnny was still facing away, head bent, eyes apparently studying the interesting array of dust between his boots.  Slowly Scott rose, tested his steadiness, and suppressed a fresh shiver.  He approached the group, his brother standing out against the others in that pink shirt of his.   “If I had the strength, I’d let you have the first punch,” said softly aloud to that pink back.  “I’m not going to give up on you, not yet, Brother.  Though you are testing my patience.”

 

THREE

Madrid was laughing at him, sweaty and smelly, his sleeves torn by snagging branches, hands loaded with scratches, feet hurting.  Madrid had been doing a lot of that lately, popping up somewhere off to his left, snickering at the evidence of hard work and beckoning him with a lazy finger to walk off and follow.  Dammit, how he wanted to sometimes.  Like now.  But the crew needed him, needed his muscle and his grit.  And those stupid cows needed him to help get this water downstream.  His cows, Johnny corrected himself.  Even though he might be working like a ranch hand, he was a part owner of all this.  Ranch profits meant money in his own pockets.  And for all the hard work, the regular pay was welcome.  He’d even put some in the Green River Bank for safekeeping, along with that one thousand Murdoch had initially given him, under the name of Johnny Lancer.  Good to diversify your funds, Scott had told him with a nod.  Johnny could only nod back.  Diversify your funds – if that meant putting it in more than one place then he guessed he was doing the right thing, since he also had some stashed behind the headboard of his bed. 

After finally clearing the creek, they’d moved to the main river upstream to check for any further potential blockage.  Here they found a collection of toppled trees, likely uprooted from the last storm.  Two hung precariously over the steep riverbank, and another one was leaning drunkenly atop them.  Three smaller ones lined the torn and slippery banking.  The river here was deep and swift flowing.  It could absorb a few fallen trees without much impact, but the goodly current could beach them at the shallow spot they had just opened. 

“What about it, Johnny?” Scott had asked him as they stood assessing the situation.  “Send them down or haul them up?”

Johnny had eyed him, wondering if Scott really wanted his opinion or if his brother was just using that damned polite way about him.  So he’d hesitated, but Scott only waited in silence, his face carefully neutral, though Johnny could sense a trace of impatience in his stance.  But still Scott said nothing, didn’t show any challenge in his eyes, didn’t give him that skeptical lift of a brow.  He just stood there, wiped at an occasional smear of sweat on his cheek. “Pull ‘em back,” Johnny finally nodded. 

Scott gave him a grin and a nod and they went at it, first securing the trees with rope lines.  The wagon team was enlisted to haul back the leaning tree, their other mounts to keep the lines taut and prevent the others from sliding into the river below.  Johnny ducked back under the lines and trotted to the edge of the bank to help signal the removal.  Scott, he noticed as he jogged into position, was doing the same but from a location away from the bank, ready to second his motions.  Johnny waved and Scott repeated the gestures and the team was drawn back.  The tree swayed and moved, then rose.  Funny how they had set themselves up like this, working together without discussing it.  Easy, natural, without any words of explanation.  Felt surprisingly good to understand each other.   Moreover, it felt good to be asked what to do and have his decision accepted.  To be in charge, to have others follow his lead.  Sort of like Madrid in a range war – took the same sort of thinking.  Only he didn’t have to dodge any bullets on this particular job.   Johnny glanced over at his brother.  Maybe he’d judged Scott too quickly.  Though they hadn’t spoken much lately, there’d been no surliness in his brother’s tone, no condescending attitude – there hadn’t been since that day in the saloon, not until that jab about pride earlier today.   And even then it seemed to have fallen unexpectedly out of Scott’s mouth, as if he’d been caught in a bad mood about something and hadn’t really meant it.

<<Not likely,>> Madrid silently told him.  <<He’s just testing you. Trying to prove you wrong.  You had him shot, boy.  He ain’t going to forget that.>>

“Shut up,” Johnny muttered aloud, gesturing for the tree to be raised again, saw Scott imitate him.

<<Bigger slice of pie when there’s only two.>>

“No,” Johnny said to the heated afternoon air.  Family business, that’s what Scott had said about Stryker.  Don’t give yourself enough credit, he’d said.

<<Pride…>> Madrid reminded him. 

A man had to have some pride to be good at his trade; Johnny showed it by the way he wore his rig, the way he faced an opponent.  It wasn’t bragging – it was confidence.  And his brother knew all about confidence, didn’t he?  He was so damn good at all he did.  Johnny looked over at Scott again, then slid his gaze to the others.  They were all working attentively, but somehow Scott seemed to be the most focused of the group.  Helluva worker, ol’ Boston.  Always seemed to get the job done to the old man’s satisfaction.  Murdoch was spare on the praise, but he did acknowledge a good job when he saw it.  And Johnny hadn’t been above trying some of the things Scott did, just to see if it worked for him, too, like assigning work tasks before the crew headed out, and double-checking the work when one hand declared it to be finished, just in case it needed a little extra adjustment.  And even though Murdoch might not have realized what his other son had done, dinner sure had been better when the told man wasn’t ranting on about all the things that weren’t right.

<<Quit fooling yourself and sell out,>> Madrid cajoled.  <<Be easier than doing all this crawling.  They don’t want your kind, anyway.>>

“No,” Johnny said again.

<<He’s watching you.  Looking to see you fall, boy,>> said Madrid, pointing to Scott.  <<Unless you can make him fall first.  Hell…>>

He heard a rope twang as it snapped free, then another, heard the shouts of the men following.  Saw the tree suddenly straighten and waver.  Watched transfixed as it rushed through the air.  Felt the whoosh as it toppled ever closer – closer to him.  It filled his sight – there was nothing but that hot, faded sky and the green and brown tree blocking out the baleful sun.  Time inexorably slowed, just like the moments before a gunfight.  In a way he was facing an opponent, waiting for that flicker, the cue that told him that the commitment had been made.  He couldn’t make his own move until then – until now –

Something crashed into him, swept him off his feet, tumbled him sideways.  It held tightly, shoving him toward the edge of the banking. It was beating and breathing as it grasped him, warm and alive, encased in a bit of brown and green – the tree – no, a jacket, and gloves…

They hurtled over the embankment, felt a moment of weightlessness, then crashed hard into the river.  The splash felt magnificent, shockingly cold against the warm day, and then they were sliding through slippery arms, down and down in a rush of water, sinking deeper, losing air, drowning…

Johnny clawed free and stroked upward. He broke the surface quickly.  “Jesus y Dios!” he gasped with a splutter, tossing his head to whip the streaming dark hair from his eyes. “What the hell, Boston?” he declared, furiously treading water. “Next time don’t shove so hard.”

“I’m sorry,” came back the call from his right.  He turned as Scott splashed to his side. “Seemed to be a good idea at the time.”  Scott tread the choppy water lightly, making Johnny feel clumsy in comparison.  “Besides, I didn’t want to have to explain.”

“Explain what?” Johnny coughed out.

“Explain to our father why you got crushed by a tree when I was only yards from you.” 

Damn him for trying to find it funny, though by now he should be used to his brother’s penchant for wit at a time like this.  Though there seemed to be a protective edge to Scott’s tone that Johnny hadn’t noticed before. “Could have got yourself crushed,” Johnny pointed out. <<Then who’d have to do the explaining?>> he thought, thinking how easy it was between Scott and Murdoch.  Madrid obligingly popped up and smiled at him.

But Scott affected a grin.  “Then I guess we’re both lucky.”  He ran a wet hand over his running face.  “Are you all right?  Anything broken?  Bleeding?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I can get out of here,” Johnny told him.  They swung their gazes upward; some of the men were leaning over the banking, calling down to them.    “Dios, tengo frío,” Johnny said through a chill that made him shiver.

“If that means this water is cold then I agree,” Scott said.  “What’s this, spring fed?”  Then without waiting for a response he called up to Isidro, “Send down a line.”

By the time they had been hauled up onto the bank a fire was being lit and blankets handed out.  Johnny flapped a hand of thanks for the help, coughed again, swiped an arm over his face and hair.  He turned back to lean on his elbows and stared at the tree now hanging over the embankment in a position similar to its mates.  The tree that had nearly crushed him – and his brother – to death.

Scott was already on his feet, stripping off his sodden cropped jacket, peeling his bandana away from his throat.  One glove was stuffed in his back pocket, fingers pointing upward; the other was missing.

“Well?” he asked, putting his hands to his hips and looking down to his brother.

Johnny squinted up at him.  “Well what?”

“Anything broken?”

Johnny rolled, climbed to his knees and felt a bruise rising along his ribs where his brother had grabbed him.  He glanced over himself, wet and sandy, shirt and pants clinging uncomfortably.  “Guess not,” he said, looking back up.

He felt it then, that sense of expectation that he should have said more.  And now Scott was giving him that lift of one brow; in silence, his brother turned and walked to where Isidro had the campfire going.

“Wait – hey.”  Johnny hurried to catch up, stepped around to halt his brother’s stride.  He dropped his gaze and shrugged, then looked up.  “Thanks.”  He glanced back.  “That was a mighty big tree.”

Scott allowed a nod, and a little grin snaked about his lips.  “You’re welcome, Brother.”  His hand reached out, swatted Johnny lightly in the midsection with a watery smack.   “Don’t scare me like that again, though.  I kind of like having you around. Might as well take a break,” he announced to the crew and moved off.

Family business.  Just like that day with Pardee, just like that day in the saloon.  Scott had just stepped in and saved Johnny Madrid’s hide.  No, Johnny Lancer’s hide.  Thoughts quickly filled up Johnny’s head again. He ran a hand over his wet hair to smoothen it, pressed fingers to his temple.  He’d had people come through for him before – people who had cared enough not to let him die.  Their aid was genuine, but temporary.  It wasn’t family.  It wasn’t his brother, looking out for him.  His brother.  Kept a pretty good eye peeled for trouble, Boston did.  Could work a rifle, hold his own in a fight. Sure could run fast, too.

Madrid’s wariness rushed back over Johnny, instantly darkening his thoughts.  Just because he was grateful to the man didn’t mean they were suddenly close.  Besides, what did Scott know about a family, anyway?  He didn’t have any brothers or sisters, either.

<<I kind of like having you around,>> he’d said. 

<<Probably just being polite – that’s the way he was raised,>> Madrid commented.  <<He didn’t really mean it.>>

They couldn’t just instantly become brothers. Not even a rescue from a falling tree was going to ensure that.  Johnny didn’t know how to be a brother anyway.  He sure wasn’t a good one by this show of stupidity.  Scott had rescued him – again. First Pardee, then Wes, and now this. 

Johnny made a sound and walked away – why should he care what Scott thought?  And why did it suddenly matter?

<<Watch your back,>> Madrid lightly warned.

But Johnny turned away from him, too.

 

FOUR

Isidro sidled up to Johnny.  “He shivers still,” the older vaquero said quietly, making a vague gesture toward Scott.

“How?” Johnny asked back, squinting up at the sun.  He shook out his half-dried shirt one more time then slipped it on, the remaining dampness cooling his heated torso. “It’s hotter than yesterday – we’re all baking out here.”

“He remains cold – see?”

Johnny saw Scott hitch then straighten.  He frowned and a curl of guilt tightened in his gut.

<<You getting soft?>> Madrid asked him.

“His business,” Johnny said to Isidro, glancing down to attend the buttons on his shirt.

“Johnny,” the older man cajoled.  “He is your hermano, compadre.  He just saved your life.  He deserves your concern.”

“I’m right here,” Johnny told the older man.  “If he wants something all he has to do is ask.”

“Pride, compadre,” Isidro told him.  “He is in charge, no?”

It’d be so easy to just turn away, shrug it off, keep it from attaching itself to him.

“I’ll just make it worse if I go over there,” Johnny said.  But he looked over at his brother again.  The man had saved his life – Johnny owed him something for that.  Family or not, he owed Scott. 

“The water was cold – he could be sick,” said Isidro.

Sick now because of him – shot because of him.  Johnny swore and eyed Scott – the good brother.  Knew how to do everything just right, didn’t have anything to sully his shining reputation.  Didn’t have any shadow of the past that clung to him.  Even that Boston living hadn’t made him soft.  It made Johnny feel all the dirtier – and for a good minute, completely envious.  Dammit…

“Johnny…” Isidro prodded.

He found his feet moving in Scott’s direction, all too aware of the smile working across Isidro’s face. 

<<You’re a damned fool,>> Madrid told him and faded.

“You all right?” Johnny called as he hesitantly approached his brother.  “Isidro thought maybe something was wrong.”

Scott’s glance was sharp.  “Fine – I was just thinking.”

Johnny shrugged, feeling quickly foolish.  Isidro and his damned concern.  “The men are waiting.”

“Then start without me.  I’ll catch up.”

“Okay…” Johnny hesitated, his glance going over the other man.  A few shivers, nothing more.  He looked healthy otherwise; didn’t have much color to begin with, anyway.  And he kept himself pretty well covered; being so fair he tended to burn easily.

“You can handle it, can’t you?” Scott demanded.

“Yeah, I can handle it,” Johnny retorted, irritation making him warm.  “I don’t need you telling me what to do.”

“Fine, then. Get going.”  Scott turned.  “I’ll just…” He wavered and then stumbled.

 “Hey…” Quickly Johnny caught his arm.  The heat bleeding through his brother’s sleeve was unexpectedly strong. Isidro was right – he was sick.

Scott gained his feet quickly.  “Don’t concern yourself,” he retorted, lightly pushing away.

“Boston, if you’re not right…”

“I asked you not to call me that,” Scott snapped.  He closed his eyes and took a breath. Then he opened them again, but kept them to a squint.  “We need to finish with these trees,” he continued in a controlled tone.  “Chop what we can and take it back for firewood.”  He looked up and Johnny followed his gaze.  The sky was deepening to gold under the slanting sun.  “Might as well make camp tonight – head back tomorrow.”  He rubbed a fist over one eye then straightened, his features following.  “That all right with you?”

Johnny stared hard, weighing the rebuff, debating whether he should ask again.  “Sure,” he said in an easy tone.  “No need to ride back in the dark.  Scott…”

“There’s work to do,” Scott interrupted.  “Let’s not waste time.”  He moved off, his shoulders stiff and high, his fists clenched at his sides.

Johnny’s moment of worry gave out. He understood; stay out of it.  Well, fine.  Why should he care anyway?

<<That’s right – stop wasting your time,>> Madrid huffed at him.

They weren’t brothers, not in a real sense.  Scott’s moments of friendliness were just that – moments.  That rescue today was just an obligation so he wouldn’t have to explain to the old man – that’s what he’d said.  That remark about being scared was just another of his nice airs.

He hadn’t even talked about the shooting.  Hadn’t said anything.  The bouts of silence told Johnny a lot about that day and all the days since.  Scott blamed him, didn’t like him.  Saw him like everyone else saw him – a fast gun who had no business being a part of a family.

So why was he still here, digging at dirt and mud – warring with Madrid and feeling something more than guilt for the man who was his brother?

 

FIVE

“Well, you sure had us fooled, didn’t you?”

Scott swore to himself, the flask halfway to his lips.  He hadn’t heard Johnny’s approach, hadn’t sensed much but the sound of his own drinking, the rapid pulse beating under his temples, the crying pain in his back.  He’d brought the whiskey with him to try and numb some of the symptoms that the quinine would not, and hadn’t expected to have to explain. Until now, no one had bothered him.  Not even kindly Isidro whom, Scott was sure, had been assigned to this work detail on Murdoch’s orders to keep an eye out for the inexperienced Lancer sons.

He looked up at his brother standing over him in the growing darkness and cursed that earlier display of weakness – Johnny had been drawn to it like a vulture to prey.  “Leave off, Brother,” he said.  “This is none of your business.”

“You and your fancy clothes, pretty talk, high manners,” Johnny continued. He pointed at the flask held between Scott’s fingers – he wasn’t listening.  “You’re not any different than the rest of us, are you, Boston?”

Scott held back his retort at the recurring use of the irritating nickname.  “Meaning that I bleed the same as you do?” he asked, finally lifting the flask to his lips, though a little voice was warning him not to be drawn into Johnny’s anger.  This wasn’t about their differences – or was it?  “Guess I already proved that, didn’t I, Brother?” 

“Yeah, you bled,” Johnny said.  “So what?  You’re dirty, too, as dirty as the rest of us.  Stinking, smelly dirty, grit under your collar, dirt under your nails – and whiskey on your breath.  Fine clothes and fancy talk can’t hide all the stinking dirt you’re wearing.” 

There was something else in his tone besides anger – disappointment. 

Scott drank, swallowed fast to push the liquor down, hasten the fever, and burn it out.  He had to get over the sweats by morning if he was ever going to finish the job and get home.  But he eyed his brother standing there taut and ready for a fight, fists clenching and unclenching.  Disappointment – that notion absorbed some of the fuzziness in his brain.  What did his brother expect of him?  Did Johnny look up to him?  Then this surely looked like a fall from grace, to see the Boston educated dandy of a brother drinking like a ranch hand and nowhere near a saloon.  Frustration wormed through Scott.  He didn’t want Johnny’s admiration or even his jealousy – he wanted his brother’s trust and friendship. <<I’m no better, Brother,>> he said silently to Johnny glowering before him. << The irony is that you are better than you believe yourself to be.>> 

Scott wiped the back of his hand over his lips, waited for the wave of heat to finish assaulting him before responding.  “Yes, I’ve been dirty, Brother,” he finally said, refusing to get up.  The whiskey had loosened his limbs, but wasn’t nearly enough to keep him down; he’d drunk more, and more often, long before he ever came to Lancer.   But the fever pretty well had him under.  “I’ve sweated and starved and crawled.  We’re all men, Johnny.  We all sweat and bleed.  We do it for what we believe in, who we believe in.”  His lips lifted into a smile.  “And sometimes that even includes wayward brothers.”

“When did you starve or crawl?” Johnny sneered, and this time there was envy added to his tone. He was pushing too hard, way too hard.  “You sit there half-drunk and expect me to believe--”

“Prison.”

He wasn’t sure why he’d said it.  To shut Johnny up, he supposed, to cut off his brother’s misplaced anger and guilt, to squash that misunderstood dismay.  And to expose his own plainness, if it could be called that. To show his brother, and the rest of them – hell, the whole world – that he wasn’t so different.

Johnny was staring, his mouth slightly open, confusion narrowing his gaze.  Scott saw his lips twitch, knew the question was coming, knew he would not refuse to answer it.

“How come?”

Scott rolled to his feet and tossed the flask to the ground; it landed with a clank into the dark at his feet.  Incredible heat washed over him but he shook it off.  “War, Brother,” he told Johnny.  “Captured by the enemy.”

Prison, not some by-your-leave jail where you waited for the circuit judge to come and levy your fine, ate your three meals each day and lounged in relative ease, watching the dust settle.  Where you didn’t battle for blankets, or scraps of food, or even clothing.  Where even sleeping became its own miracle.  Jail was merely an inconvenience, maybe an embarrassment.  War prison ate at a man, gnawed at his limbs and his mind, made him less than…

“For how long?”

Dammit, what was it going to take for him to understand?  Scott turned and got in close, real close, but Johnny did not back up.  “One year,” he breathed in his brother’s face.  “That’s twelve months, Brother, three hundred and sixty-five days of torture.  Is that dirty enough for you?  Is it?” he demanded of his suddenly silent brother.  The urge to hit was so strong he almost gave into it.  He wanted to, hated to resist it when he knew it would feel so good, so damned good, to put a fist to this disconnect that separated them.  But he curled his fingers into his palms – and waited.

Johnny broke eye contact first.  He glanced down and stepped back.  “Madre de Dios,” he exclaimed softly as his hands fisted onto his hips.

The fever resurged and swept over Scott, and the darkness suddenly became darker.  He turned on his heel and his toe nudged the fallen flask.  Savagely he kicked it, heard it bounce away and break.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw Johnny flinch.  Scott dropped back onto his bedroll.

Johnny was now watching him, those eyes raking in everything.  “Is there something on my face that needs to be washed off, Brother?” Scott called over lazily, recovering enough to rely once again on his most effective weapon – his tongue.  “If not then I’m tired and I’d like to turn in.  Unless you have something else to discuss.”

Johnny straightened.  His hands dropped to his sides.  But he kept silent.

Scott eased the blankets back over his legs.  “Good night, then,” he said and rolled over.

 

SIX

“You was yelling,” Johnny said in a careful, quiet voice.  His left hand slowly reached out, drew aside the fully cocked Colt held all too securely in Scott’s grasp.  He hadn’t expected to find a gun filling his brother’s palm.  Scott was fast, very fast, and even in the throes of semi-consciousness his grip was completely steady.  “Scott?”

“Don’t do that again,” Scott spoke in a tight voice, releasing the hammer.

“Nope, don’t intend to,” Johnny answered in a rueful voice, dropping his hand as his brother returned the gun to its holster.  He blew out a relieved breath, though the surprise still clung to him.  “Bad dream?” he asked.

Scott sat back.  “Since you always sleep well, I’m surprised you might recognize one,” he said sourly, scrubbing an arm over his sweaty face.

His first reaction was to retort to the reference made about their first morning at Lancer when they were sizing each other up and brimming with confidence, swaggering with complete courage.  But he swallowed it back, remembering his brother’s ability with words.  “Guess I stretched that a bit,” he admitted a little sheepishness.

“You don’t say.”  Scott lay down and closed his eyes.  “Sorry I woke you.”

Johnny shrugged.  “It’s all right, I was up.”

Scott cracked on eye open.  “So that’s how you deal with it.  I should try that.”  The rancor had left his voice now.  He had to be still hurting, if not from that whiskey than from this sickness that still clung to him.

“Sometimes it keeps ol’ El Diablo from getting in the way,” Johnny added.

“Yes,” Scott nodded, and something slipped from his gaze that eased his features.  “I’d forgotten that.”

“Got some coffee.”  Johnny glanced at the purple-gray sky and the widening yellow ribbon working up from the horizon; that fierce niggling that had been dancing inside him for weeks had calmed a little.  “Like a cup?”

Scott shrugged but his eyes were open again.

Johnny retrieved the pot and two cups.  He poured for his brother and himself.  Scott sat up on one elbow, took the cup and sipped quickly.  His face was sweaty again, his eyes pinched, his jaw tight.

“You all right?” Johnny asked him, setting the pot aside and dropping to one knee.  He took his own sip.

“No.” Scott took another drink.  “But I will be.”

“I guess something made you sick?”

“Yes – something.” 

His business, Johnny reminded himself against the rebuff, then turned aside his feelings and concentrated, really scrutinized, his brother.  Scott wasn’t exactly his physical self, that was obvious.  Even in the chilly gloom Johnny could see that his brother’s face was pale and shiny, his jaw tense, his eyes dark with exhaustion.  There were lines about his mouth that weren’t there before.  Yet he wasn’t complaining. Just propped himself up and kept going in that stoic way of his.  Prison, Johnny thought briefly.  All that time had to give a man a certain amount of deep toughness, the kind that would always exist long after the hard times were over. 

Scott drank again then put down his cup.  His hand fumbled toward his inside jacket pocket.  Johnny sat back on his heels and watched as he withdrew a metal vial, unscrewed the top and shook out something white – a pill.  He shoved it into his mouth and chased it down with a gulp of coffee.  “Quinine,” he said shortly.  Johnny nodded – he’d heard of it used for fever.  “Caught the ague,” Scott said.

“In the War?” Johnny guessed.

“In prison,” Scott corrected.  He shrugged and looked down at the cup in his hand.  His voice went soft.  “The whiskey – sometimes it helps…”

So he hadn’t been plain drinking, not really, not like Saturday night.  And he knew Scott well enough to know that his brother had a reason for the things he did; guilt twinged inside him.

“Sorry for accusing you…” he started.

Scott shook his head.  “You didn’t know.”  He let off a soft snort.  “I was hoping no one would know.”

Three hundred and sixty-five days of torture, he’d called it.  And a fierce sickness, to boot. Well, that might cause a man to seek a bottle now and again, for both the fever and any nightmares that might come with it.  Johnny recalled a few bleary tequila nights himself, when things had gone badly down on the border.  Still, he had a hard time imagining this man – his brother – had endured all that time in captivity, sweating and starving and dirty.  Probably had taken years to wash off the stink of that place.  Maybe that’s what made him so fussy about his looks and his clothes.   And now some of that had come back with this ague – Johnny ducked his head as the guilt clambered up over him.  First that bullet in the shoulder and then the dunk in the river – all because of him.

The silence rose up between them again, thick and awkward.  As always, Johnny had a need to fill it.  But not with the same sort of prickling questions and skeptical comments he’d been uttering.  Maybe it was the bare gloom before him or the cold ground under him that had chiseled away at those sorts of thoughts, leaving the truth exposed. “Scott, I…”

Scott waved a hand but held his gaze.  “Stop thinking it’s your fault, Johnny.  It’s not – none of it is.” He paused and let a smile rise from his lips to his eyes. “Although you can be a hazard to be around.”

Johnny tried to return the smile but the words rang a little too true for his liking. And now there was a new throbbing in the pit of his stomach.  He tried to ease it by swallowing, but it only pulsed harder.  “Family business, huh?” he tried instead.

“Yes,” Scott nodded, his eyes suddenly no longer tired, but vitally alert.

Johnny bit back the flushing creeping up under that stare.  “You still gonna call it that when it happens next time?” he asked, unable to keep the challenge from his voice.

“Well, I’m hoping it won’t become a habit.”  Scott declared.  He drained his coffee cup and held it out for a refill.  “That’s three you owe me now? Not that I’m keeping count.”

Johnny poured, though guilt singing through him was making the pot hard to hold.  Madrid edged into view, waggling a finger at him.  Johnny turned from the form.  “Scott…” he started over dry lips.

“It’s not a one man deal, Johnny,” Scott said quickly.  “Family just doesn’t work like that.”

“Family,” Johnny spit out.  He tossed his coffee aside and stood.  “Does family mean getting hurt?” he demanded, pacing quickly.

“Sometimes,” Scott nodded.

“You got shot because of me.”  Johnny took a few more steps through the scrubby brush and then came back.  “Brought all this on…”

“You couldn’t know what sort of revenge Stryker planned.”

“I knew he wanted it.”  Johnny began walking again – his head was so full and his tongue clumsy. He stomped a little, stopped and bounced on jiggling knees.  “Even before his boy died.  I knew that boy wouldn’t make it – gut shot…Stryker would want to hurt in kind.”  That’s the way it was with him – always, it seemed.  Men knew his kind, took delight in pressing him.  How could he add family to that?  It wasn’t the commitment that scared him, but the responsibility for them.  Already Scott had been hurt by his reputation, his ragged, dirty reputation.

“He could have gunned you down and been done with it,” Scott pointed out.

“I wish he had tried,” Johnny spat.  “Instead he showed up at the house demanding an eye for an eye and me not even there.”  He laughed, short and harsh.  “I was too busy being a whipped dog with my tail between my legs.  The old man must have hated my guts at that moment.”  <<And you, too,>> he thought.

“Johnny, no one hates you…” Scott scoffed.

“It follows me, Scott.”  Johnny’s fist punched the air.  His voice was bitter.  “That stinking smell – that gunhawk smell – it follows me wherever I go and it’ll infect everything like it always has.  You – you know things…I only know one this one thing  and it don’t work here. This family – it just won’t work--”

Scott rolled up and strode to him, took him by the arms; his long fingers gripped painfully.  “It will if you give it a chance,” he declared.

Johnny shook his head and dropped his gaze, feeling suddenly defeated.  “You don’t realize…”

“But I do realize, Brother.”  Scott’s grasp loosened a little, but he didn’t let go.  “You can’t change your past – I can’t change mine.  And Murdoch, he can’t change his either.  None of us can.  It’s part of who we are.  But you’ve got an opportunity to have something more – circumstances have changed. Give it time – I think you’ll be pleased with the results.”

“And men like Stryker…” Johnny persisted.

“Well, I’ll watch your back, if you’ll do a better job watching mine.”

Johnny’s head came up in indignation, but saw a friendly gleam in Scott’s tired gaze.  He could argue; his tongue was all ready for it, ready to give into his uncertainty and Madrid’s beckoning finger.  But a small piece of his mind resisted and he hung onto it. Maybe he could change directions without changing himself.  Scott seemed to have done it, and believed that his brother could, too.  Johnny realized that he’d come to rely on that decisiveness in the scant few months that they’d been together.  Scott’s determination and confidence was what had been pulling him along all this time, not because he didn’t know what to do, but because Scott believed in him.  In the man he was, not the reputation he carried; Scott barely gave a nod to Madrid.  Didn’t seem to ignore him exactly, just didn’t acknowledge him as a separate entity.

Maybe there was a place for Johnny Lancer here.  Lancer not Madrid, though he knew that shadow was not going to go away any time soon.  But maybe he didn’t have to listen to it quite as much.  After all, it wasn’t like there was a lot for Madrid to do about the ranch.  And then maybe Johnny Lancer could find a way to make more than a ripple out of his life.

“Might not be easy, watching my back,” he said to his brother silently watching him.

“I think I can handle it,” Scott replied.

<<Or die trying,>> Madrid scoffed silently to Johnny.

Well, three hundred and sixty-five days of torture had likely taught him a thing or two about surviving, Johnny figured.  His brother was a pretty good shot with a rifle, and had grabbed that Colt with good speed.

“Okay, Boston,” Johnny said, giving Scott a slight tap on the shoulder.  “Let’s give this back-watching a try.”

 

SEVEN

Maria had greeted them with a smile and then an exclamation of surprise upon seeing what Scott was sure wasn’t his best face.  A rapid explanation in Spanish with Johnny translating let them know that Murdoch and Teresa had traveled to Morro Coyo and wouldn’t be back until dinnertime.  An opportunity to take a bath and a nap before they arrived, Scott decided, put this ague behind him until the next round in a few days, and hopefully then the symptoms would be easier.  It was Saturday, he realized, but he’d gladly forego a trip to town for the luxury of his own bed.

“I’ll take him for you.”  Johnny lifted Rambler’s reins from Scott’s lax grip.

“Wait.”  Scott pulled his rifle from the boot before Johnny moved off with the horses, then nodded gratefully and let them go.  His cavalry training had allowed him to doze off and on in the saddle for the ride home, but every time he had awoken he’d spotted a glimpse of a concho-studded leg nearby and knew little brother was keeping a watchful eye on him, had even felt a guiding hand on his arm a time or two. It was Johnny who broke camp and got the crew moving, giving Scott a few more minutes to rest. By the time he had secured his bedroll to the saddle the group was ready to move out.  Johnny fell back to ride beside him, saying little. But the silence between them was an easy one.

The yard was quiet but for the wagon rumbling toward the south barn, disgorging men as it went; they hustled about, eager to get any remaining chores done, bolt down some chow, then hasten to wash and shave before heading to the saloons.  A glance right found Johnny almost to the north barn door, ambling ahead of Barranca and Rambler in that loose-jointed way of his.  As Scott watched Barranca suddenly threw his head back, nearly yanking the reins from Johnny’s grasp. Rambler obligingly began to dance as well.  Immediately Johnny firmed his grip on both sets of reins and spoke quietly to them.  Scott shook his head – as much as he loved horses he hated their skittish nature.  Then again, he really should be caring for his own mount, instead of letting his brother do it for him; that was one instruction from the cavalry that he had never neglected, and it had saved him numerous times. Propping his rifle against his shoulder, Scott headed for the barn.  Maybe he’d still get a shot at the bathhouse, especially if Maria already had something simmering on the stove.  Johnny would most certainly fill his stomach first. 

The sun had lowered enough to cast a shadow of the barn onto the ground before the door, cooling the immediate area.  Probably the shadow that had startled the horses.  Scott stepped into the shade, allowed his eyes to adjust and propped the rifle against the wall in his customary manner.  He never took the weapon into the barn with him, preferring to leave it outside while saddling and unsaddling his horse.  Then he sauntered through the big door.

“I felt guilty--” he began, but the sight before him made him swallow the rest of his words.

“Good timing,” growled Winthrop with a hard smile as he cocked the gun in his hand, the gun that was aimed directly at Johnny’s head.  Johnny was a tumbled heap on the floor, his upturned face already sporting a bloody gash across one cheek.  Unconscious, had to be, Scott wildly hoped over a jolt in his chest as he searched the slack features for signs of life.

“Nobody pushes me around,” Winthrop continued.  Johnny’s Colt filled his other hand and he used it to command Scott to raise his hands away from the gunbelt wrapping the younger man’s hips.  “Especially some new young pup from the East.”  He nudged Johnny with the toe of his boot, but received no response.  But was that a shift of breath?  Scott chanced another look as Winthrop spoke again.  “I figured you’d come looking when this breed didn’t show, just not so soon.”

“Sorry to spoil your plan, then,” Scott replied.  Yes, there was a flicker of the lids and a curl of fingers.  His brother was aware.

“Oh, it ain’t spoiled, not by far,” Winthrop boasted.  “This breed here was just to make sure you came back, though I can’t figure why you’d be so interested in your daddy’s little mistake.”

“He’s my brother.”

“That’s what they say, though blood don’t always make a difference.”

“In this case, it does,” Scott told him, resisting the urge to glance at Johnny.  <<Take your time, Brother. We’ve got to work something out.  It’s not a one-man deal, remember?>>  He settled himself and hinted at a grin.  “Now, my friend, if you use a gun the whole ranch is going to hear the shot, so why don’t you holster one of them and make me feel better?”

Winthrop smiled and kicked Johnny again, who, to his credit, did not make a sound, though he surely felt that boot against his side.  “You let me worry about that, pup.  Now, you throw your own gun over there.”  He indicated an empty stall to Scott’s left.

His gun – Winthrop did not know about the other gun – his rifle – propped just outside the door.  Johnny might have guessed, though. His brother had seem him pull it from the boot, and knew his habit of leaving it outside. Firepower, if he could just get to it.  “And just what is your little plan?” Scott asked the other man as he carefully reached for the buckle holding his gunbelt.  So far Winthrop did not object to him shedding it along with the Colt secured in the holster.

“Oh, I got one,” Winthrop assured him.  “You’re gonna feel what it’s like to be at the end of my fists, just like you did to me.  And I’m going to shoot you first, for good measure, see how you bleed.”

“I guess that’s the important thing out here,” Scott lazily commented, flipping the gunbelt away and putting his hands to his now bare hips.  A surreptitious glance down revealed that his brother had noiselessly shifted onto his side.  “Seeing whether a man bleeds or not.  Why is that?  To check on the color of his blood, you suppose?”

“Shut up,” Winthrop growled.

Whatever Johnny was planning would have to be quick to relieve Winthrop of one or both of those guns.  Surprise him, somehow, trip him, shove him, re-direct his attention and give Scott a chance to reach for that rifle.  Johnny –Lancer and Madrid – wasn’t a stranger to risks. Yes, that was how he’d do it, Scott calculated.  <<No problem, Brother, as long as he shoots back at me and not at you.>>

“What now?” Scott prompted.

Winthrop gestured with a gun.  “Out back.”

Wrong direction.  Scott laughed lightly, stalling.  “That back door looks right out onto the road – you’ll be in plain view of all those hands getting ready for a ride into Saturday night.” 

Winthrop’s dismay was crossing his face as he realized his escape routes were closing off, the guns would cause a commotion, and he had two hostages to consider.  He was either going to have to risk a shot or trust his fists.  And by the way he held onto those Colts, he didn’t seem too inclined to go at Scott without them. 

“Turn around,” he ordered to Scott.

With no choice, Scott turned slowly on his heel.

“Now!” Johnny shouted.

At the edge of his vision Scott saw his brother bolt up; Winthrop shouted in surprise and wavered.  A gunshot boomed inside the barn.   Scott dove through the door.  His right hand snagged the rifle as he went down; he had it in both hands before he landed on one hip.  Another shot whined out of the barn toward him.  He fired back at the bit of faded chambray approaching the door.  There was a yelp and the fabric collapsed.  Scott rolled up, the rifle already re-cocked.

Johnny stumbled out into the shadow-filled yard, blood from the gash running afresh down his face.  Scott grabbed an arm as he sank and guided him the rest of the way to the ground.

“Stay here,” he commanded, seeing Isidro and a few others hurrying up from the bunkhouse and headed back into the barn.

Barranca and Rambler were still shifting nervously in their stalls.  Winthrop was on the floor where he had landed, holding a very bloody arm to his chest.  Shattered bone, Scott guessed, by the way the other man was shaking in pain.

“Damn you,” Winthrop snarled, seeing him.

“Your choice,” Scott said, lowering the rifle but leaving it cocked.  To Frank and Isidro approaching from behind he said, “Lock him in the guardhouse, and find Arturo to keep him from bleeding to death.  We’ll settle this when Murdoch comes home.”

Sí, jefe,” Isidro responded and he and Frank reached for the man.

Scott uncocked the rifle and gave it over to his right hand.  He went to Rambler’s stall, calmed the still saddled animal with a soothing voice and a few pats even as his own weariness swept back over him.  “We’ll get you taken care of, amigo,” he said to the horse and went out to check on his brother.

Johnny was still sitting on the ground, one hand pressed against his bleeding cheek and Isidro’s cousin Jorge standing over him.  “Glad you didn’t miss, Boston,” he called to Scott, wincing.

Scott handed the rifle over to Jorge and squatted before his brother, letting the nickname pass without comment.  “You could’ve got yourself shot,” he said, easing Johnny’s hand away from the gash and peering at it. 

“Nah,” Johnny grinned.  “That’s what I got you for – to watch my back, remember?”

“Somehow I didn’t think I’d be engaged quite so soon,” Scott laughed.  But then he was glad of it because he knew it meant something to the both of them, more than it might mean tomorrow or the next day – or the ones after that.  The test had been successful for both of them.  “Jorge, would you see to the horses?  An extra measure of oats for their fright, if you please.” As the other man nodded and moved off, Scott examined his brother’s cheek again.  “Looks like you’re going to get a black eye out of that.”  He rose and held a hand out. 

Johnny took it and let himself be hauled up. “Might give me some sympathy with the cantina señoritas,” he said, then sobered.  “Though the old man…”

“He’ll understand,” Scott assured him.  “After all, it’s my bullet in Winthrop’s arm.  I’m just glad I guessed you right or it could’ve been worse.” 

“For who?” Johnny grinned again as Scott steered him out of the shadow of barn and over toward the house.  “You got good instincts, Brother.”

Brother, not Boston.  “Thanks, Brother,” Scott returned.

They took a few steps in silence. “You figure blood does make a difference?” Johnny then asked him.

Scott hesitated just a fraction, knowing that there could be a very wrong way to answer.  “Means something,” he returned.  “Got us here, made us stay, unless that partnership paper did the talking for you.”

“Paper burns,” Johnny reminded him.  “Blood don’t.”

Scott smiled at the fingers of trust being offered, even though he would have loved to debate whether blood could indeed burn, especially where Johnny Madrid was concerned.  But that was for another time. “I guess you’re right there, Brother.”

Johnny rummaged under his waistband and came up with a folded bandana that he pressed to his bleeding cheek.  “Thanks, Scott.  You can have the job.”

Something dropped into place between them, settled comfortably. 

“Thanks,” Scott laughed, unable to resist a little teasing, “but I see I’m already ahead – what, four already?”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Johnny declared, giving him a playful swat on the cheek.

No doubt he would, and also find a place for Madrid’s shadow along the way.

 

~ end ~

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