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Raian and Starlit Drifter

 

 

Things That Matter


Co-authored with Starlit Drifter

Part 3 of the Home Again series

Some salty language.
Many, many thanks to wonderful beta StarGzer.

Pain. Gunshots.

Flashes of light.

Screams.

He couldn't breathe. He was drowning.

He struggled; had to make it to the surface.

 

Chapter 1

Johnny, Scott, come in here,” Murdoch called out from his desk.

Johnny came in through the French doors. Scott reversed direction on the stairs to obey the order.

“What are your plans for the evening, boys?”

“I'm goin' to town.”

“I want to read the book Grandfather sent.”

Murdoch slid a drawer shut. “I'd like to talk to you both before we call it a night.” He made his way to the drinks tray.

Johnny raised his eyebrows and glanced at Scott. Scott shook his head, as puzzled as his brother. They both sat on the couch. Johnny stretched out his legs and folded his hands across his belly. “We're listening. You'll have to make it fast, though. After that big supper, I might fall asleep before I can make it to town.”

“Drink?” Murdoch held up a snifter.

“Please,” Scott replied. Johnny declined. Scott knew Johnny had no taste for brandy and preferred to wait for a drink in the cantina.

Crystal rang as Murdoch unstoppered the decanter and poured. Scott liked the brandy set because it reminded him of the one on his grandfather's desk. He imagined his mother bringing a set like it from Boston to Lancer. Odds were better it was one of the items that came with the hacienda. There were old bits and pieces like that around the place – things hinting at former owners.

Murdoch settled into his chair by the fireplace. “I'd like you two to visit friends of mine – other ranchers. You can make a tour of the region. Some of them have sons who are learning the ropes like you two have been – to take over one day. You are the next generation, and it would do you good to meet them. I've written their fathers to say you might be along for a visit.”

“Have we caught up on work, then?” The upsets with Morgan Price, Barker and Evans, the Strykers and Foleys had caused delays.

“Yes, Scott. Even if we haven't, you boys have been working hard. You've earned a break – a vacation of sorts.” He sipped his brandy. “My brother Malcolm and I used to kick up our heels on adventures together.”

Johnny pulled his legs in and sat up straight. “We have an uncle?”

Scott realized his mouth was open. He took a sip of his drink. “You haven't mentioned Malcolm before, sir.”

“He died of what they now call diphtheria, at sixteen years old.” Murdoch cleared his throat and threw back the rest of his brandy. “I left Scotland not long after that.” He stared at the floor.

“What's diphtheria?” Johnny asked.

“I've heard it called 'the strangling angel of children.'” Murdoch cleared his throat again. “I don't know the Spanish name for it.”

“I'm sorry.”

“It was a long time ago, Scott. Another lifetime.”

The grandfather clock ticked into the silence.

Johnny sat with head bowed and hands clasped in his lap. He looked sideways at Scott, and a smile grew – one that made his brother look all of sixteen. “I guess we could kick up our heels some. If that's an order.”

“It's an order.” Murdoch looked at Johnny, then Scott, and nodded. Leather creaked as he slid to the edge of the chair and stood. “It is an order.” He smiled down at them. “I'd say you two should get to bed, if you're to head out early in the morning. I've made a map and have suggestions for the route and what you can see on the way. We can talk about it over breakfast.”

Johnny slapped his legs, and he and Scott rose. Johnny headed up the stairs.

Scott lingered. “I am sorry, sir. About Malcolm. I'm sorry we didn't get to know him.”

“He would have loved you both, son.” He gave Scott's shoulder a squeeze as he went by to sit behind his desk again. “Good night.”

Scott nodded. “Good night.” Their father was full of surprises. He climbed the stairs to find Johnny waiting by his door.

“What did you think of that? He sure lets out the past in dribs and drabs, don't he?”

“He does.”

“You didn't know we had an uncle, did you?” Johnny followed him into his bedroom.

“No. This is the first I've heard about any of Murdoch's Scottish relatives.”

“He sure seemed sad.” Johnny opened the door between their rooms. “Looks like the Old Man might have a heart, after all.”

“Sounds like you're starting to give the Old Man more credit.”

“Yeah, I guess it does sound that way.” Johnny disappeared into his room.

Shadows filled Scott's room. He opened the window to freshen the air. A breeze brushed his face and carried in the sound of cows and crickets. He leaned against the window frame.

After he made the decision to come to Lancer, Scott had spent weeks reading everything available on California – its history, its peoples and current problems. He'd thought he knew what to expect, but had met unforeseen difficulties on the journey.

He had prepared himself to encounter prejudice, but found it was also aimed at himself the farther West he traveled. The clothes he wore and the way he spoke made some women titter; men pointed and laughed. At times he felt foolish.

Some assumed he was their white ally, and voiced their hatreds – mostly for Indians and Mexicans. When Scott protested those views, they accused him of being a “traitor to his own race.”

His formal demeanor hardened the closer he got to Lancer. He bought a large book at one of the layovers. Pretending to read discouraged questions and conversation from fellow passengers. He reasoned that in the worst case, the book was thick enough to stop a bullet – depending on the caliber.

After moving through so much division and discord, it was a surprise to see the medley of people at Lancer. It pleased him to see the mix of cultures and to find out he was part of it – thanks to Murdoch, his step-mother and Johnny.

Love for Lancer and for his brother came easily, almost within the first few weeks of his arrival. With Murdoch, respect for an elder grew into deep affection. Love was the only word for it now.

He still felt his father's hand on his shoulder, and his lips curved upward. Malcolm might have loved his nephews. But the look in Murdoch's eyes had said Murdoch was the one who loved his sons, in this lifetime.

 

Chapter 2

Something pinned down his arms.

He kicked and pushed off when his feet hit something solid. Floated up toward the light.

******

They rode from ranch to ranch, learning the lay of the land. Johnny seemed to enjoy himself with the ranchers' sons. After what happened with Wes, it relieved Scott to see his brother with new friends. The weight of his past could make Johnny look more careworn than Murdoch, but on the trip he laughed and smiled so much he looked his real age.

Scott found new friends as well. He looked forward to writing them and to having allies against the old guard as they all worked to move the ranches and California into the next century.

The last ranch they visited was owned by an old friend of Murdoch's, Karl Ebsen. They'd met each other right after Murdoch arrived in California, and had gone on hunting trips together to make money for themselves. Murdoch had settled at Lancer while Karl had married an Indian woman named Little Trees and moved farther north and east. Karl and Little Trees had three sons and two daughters before Little Trees died.

Karl had looked for a new wife to help raise his young children. He had been lucky to fall in love again and married a widow, Gerta, who had a young daughter of her own. They had stayed on their isolated ranch, hiding out from the rest of the world as Indians elsewhere were harassed more and more. It was a similar story to what Scott and Johnny had seen at Sabina's, only on a smaller scale – a safe haven, of sorts.

They crowded together at the table for supper, and Karl entertained them with stories of his and Murdoch's high jinks. After supper, while the women cleaned up and the others walked down to the creek to watch the sun set, Scott and the oldest son, Joseph, relaxed on the porch and lit cigars.

“Ah, tobacco. Something the Indians introduced to the white man, you know.”

Scott examined the tip of his cigar. “I read something about that.”

“My father thinks your father is a fine man. What kind of man are you, Scott Lancer?”

Scott puffed on his cigar. He knew what Joseph was fishing for. They'd skirted the issue a few times at supper. “I could aim straight for the heart, if you like. Call you 'noble savage' or 'inscrutable Indian.' Would that help you decide?” He raised an eyebrow and glanced sideways at Joseph.

Joseph nodded, expressionless, then showed his teeth in a wide grin; slapped his knee, threw his head back and laughed. “I thought so. Had to be sure. I wanted to know if the bond you seem to have with your half-brother is all sham.”

“It isn't, and he's my brother. I don't do things by halves.”

“Prost!” Joseph lifted his cigar.

Recognizing the German toast, Scott lifted his cigar and used the version Murdoch preferred. “Slàinte.”

“To our illustrious fathers. And our collection of mothers.”

“I see our mixed family as a blessing.” Scott tapped ashes off the edge of the porch. “Your family seems to be happy, as well.”

“Gerta has been good for my father. And for us. She's always been happy to see us embrace both our cultures.” Joseph puffed out a haze of smoke. “We grew up in a loving family. It was a shock to discover how others look down on us and to hear what is happening to our Indian relatives living elsewhere.”

“Because of an accident of birth.” Scott shook his head in dismay.

“My father is hoping things will get better before he dies. It's possible we'll be forced to go to a reservation, otherwise. Meanwhile, we hide out here. Father, Gerta and Mary go to town when we need supplies. We try not to draw attention to ourselves. Your brother is lucky. He could pass as white.”

“Johnny isn't ashamed of himself or his heritage.”

Joseph's eyes narrowed. “Be careful around the mining towns, Scott. Things aren't as bad as they were during the height of the rush. But ever since the Greaser Act passed, anyone who looks even slightly Indian or Mexican has to watch their backs.”

“I've read and heard about that law. Some of our vaqueros are Indian, and many of our Mexican hands work for us because they couldn't find work elsewhere. If they owned their own land before the Act, it was taken away from them afterwards. Murdoch said he'd last been in these parts before gold was found.” Scott took a deep breath, let it out and tapped his fist on the porch rail. “I've heard about the killings and lynchings that have gone on since. Do you think we should take another way home?”

“There is another trail – one which winds away from Gold Creek – but it would take you miles and days out of your way.”

“Johnny and the others are coming back. I'll ask him what he thinks.” Scott called out and waved Johnny over to the porch.

Johnny listened to the concerns. “Joseph, how long will it take us to get from here to there?”

“If you leave before sunup, you should reach town about sundown.”

“We should be fine, Scott. We'll be in and out before anybody realizes such a fine upstandin' white man is travelin' with a filthy Mex like me.”

“Don't say that, Johnny. It's not true and it's not funny.”

Johnny's head went back, eyebrows up and mouth an O. He tipped his head down and ran his fingers over the hair at his temple. “Sure, Scott.”

“Johnny, I think Scott here is odd enough to ride with the likes of us.”

“Yeah, I know. You should see him ride when he's of a mind to.” Johnny glanced at Scott. “I guess I got lucky with him and Murdoch.” He winked at Joseph. ”But don't tell him I said so.”

Scott blew a smoke ring. “Thank you for the vote of confidence, brother.”

******

Gasping for breath, he opened his eyes, but everything was blurry. Everything was throbbing. His heart hammered.

There was something in front of him. Something red. He grabbed it.

******

Everything Scott had seen of California convinced him it was a beautiful state – until they entered the mine works. Men were good at destroying things as well as each other. He had seen land chewed up by artillery, but this was an ugly kind of war against the earth. The land had been upturned by the miners, clawed deep until it showed only its barren guts. It would take generations before anything could flourish on the mine tailings – if anything but weeds ever could.

They rode past the eroded area and through grassy, rolling hills dotted by stumps of what had been a forest. The trail gave them a view down into Gold Creek as the sun neared the western horizon. Murdoch had recommended it as a good place to spend the night before the last push home to Lancer.

The horses clomped over the bridge into town. The bridge seemed unnecessary – the creek had been reduced to a wandering, sickly yellow trickle. Perhaps other times of the year, more water flowed to wash the creek clean.

The town had passed its heyday. Some of the buildings looked deserted; some had windows and doors boarded over. Tinny piano music and laughter floated by, the sound rising and falling as wind carried it between gaps in weathered walls. Horses stood hip-shot outside some of the businesses. The largest saloon was not far from the hotel Murdoch favored. The jail squatted farther down the street, and they found a livery a few doors past it.

“It seems quiet, Johnny. What do you think?”

“I'm ready for sleep in a real bed. Those bunks last night made my back ache.”

“What's the matter, little brother? Are you getting old?”

“Yeah. Old and cranky. I've learned how from the masters – you and Murdoch.”

******

Johnny paid for the horses' stalls while Scott untacked and got them settled in for the night. Since the stableman wasn't interested in talking, Johnny counted the money he had left and watched the town. He saw nothing unusual going on.

Scott came out of the barn behind him, gear slung over his shoulders. “I'll get us rooms, if you'll get us supper ordered.”

Johnny tucked the coins into a pocket. “I'll check out that saloon, though I doubt the cook Murdoch raved about is still there.”

Scott smiled his real smile – the one that reminded Johnny his brother wasn't so old. Reminded him they were almost the same age. Scott could seem as old as Murdoch, who was, to Johnny's reckoning, long in the tooth.

“You never know, Johnny. It's worth a try. I'll meet you in there, or outside the place if it doesn't pan out. With miners needing to be fed, there must be other places to get a good meal.”

Johnny wanted a beer, even if that “my strow” cook of Murdoch's wasn't around. He looked through the saloon window. A bunch of rowdies – they looked like miners blowing off steam at the end of the day – crowded around the bar. The tables were all free, though most were covered with empty glasses and bottles.

Johnny sidled through the batwings and sat at the table nearest the door. If a ruckus started, he wanted a quick way out. No one noticed him but the bartender. Johnny waved one of the empties at him, and he brought over a beer.

“Busy night, huh?”

“Maybe too busy.” The bartender took Johnny's two bits, and was out of earshot before Johnny could ask what he meant. Or ask about supper. The miners were yelling for more beer and whiskey.

“She's one cold Juanita,” one of them said. “Hangin's too good for her – that vicious trollop killed ol' Fred!”

“Hell, Billy! I don't know what you say half the time, but it sure sounds nasty! Just like that bit o' fluff Mex gal!”

“Billy's jealous 'cause she never passed the time with him. Ain't that right, Billy, ol' buddy?”

“No more than she did with you, Henry, you old sod.”

The men roared, pounded their glasses on the bar.

“Hey, Henry. Remember that time she slapped the fire outta you?” More laughter roiled the room.

Johnny heard its sharp edge. He didn't like it.

The bartender came to gather used bottles and glasses and Johnny caught hold of his sleeve as he reached out. “Is there a sheriff in this town?”

“Yes, but – “ Glasses hitting the bar again drowned out the rest.

“Floyd! Get over here! We're runnin' dry!”

Johnny drained his beer and pushed back his chair. It was time to get out, before trouble started.

The man at the end of the bar backed up toward the door. He was tall as Murdoch, but wider, arms bulging with muscle and clothes work-stained. He had a scar down one side of his face, and his hands were lumpy from long hours working in cold water. The other miners stopped talking. They all turned to face their friend.

Johnny pulled his hat low in front and sat still. He reached out to hold his empty glass in both hands. If he got up now, he'd draw attention to himself.

“Boys, you know what Fred was to me.” The man swilled his beer, swayed as he lowered the glass. “A good friend, a partner. A brother.” He poured the last of the beer down his gullet and tossed the empty onto Johnny's table. The glass rolled over and came to a stop at the edge of the table.

Johnny kept his hands on his own glass and sank lower in his chair.

The man pointed out the door with one meaty arm. “That Mex whore stuck him full o' holes. He'll never see another day. Why is she still alive? Fred was tryin' to be friendly with her, is all. Fred was everybody's friend. You all know how he was. But she killed him.”

The miners murmured agreement. “We know, Dingle. Fred was a fine man,” said Billy.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Dingle stretched his arms wide. “We all said she should die. Everybody in town said so. She deserves it.”

“What do you want us to do?” asked Henry.

“I say we do it now. What do you say?”

Billy stepped away from the bar. “I say do it now! Don't give 'er a chance to escape. What do you all say?”

A roar of voices and rush of bodies headed for the door. Dingle turned, put his fists on Johnny's table. Most of the miners jostled by the big man, patting him on the back, saying things like: “We'll do it, Dingle,” and “Don't worry, Dingle, we'll get it done; we'll go get her.” But a handful stopped and waited for Dingle.

Johnny gripped his beer glass, kept his head down. Dingle's fists were still on the table. Then they weren't.

“Floyd. Floyd! Get over here!” Floyd hustled over. Dingle pointed at Johnny. “What is this?”

Floyd raised his eyebrows. “Man came in for a beer.”

The miners all looked at Dingle, mouths open. Johnny wrinkled his nose at the smell of stale liquor and unwashed bodies.

Dingle put fists on his hips. “Why did you give him a beer?”

“He paid for it.” Floyd ran a hand down his shirtfront. “Why shouldn't I?”

“Can't you see he's Mex?”

Johnny looked up, looked Floyd right in the eyes.

“Don't look Mex to me.”

“Look at what he's wearin' fer Christ sake.” The miners leaned in, stared at Johnny's shirt, swung their heads back toward Dingle. Dingle tapped the table with a pointer finger. “He's one o' them.”

The miners' mouths dropped open again as they turned back to stare at Johnny.

“Hey, you're right,” Billy said. “He's a stinkin' Mex!”

Floyd shook his head and went back behind the bar. The miners crowded closer.

Johnny placed his hands flat on the table. Odds weren't good. They all carried guns. They were drunk – that didn't mean they couldn't shoot straight. If Scott were here, he might be able to talk them out of it, but Johnny had to hope they'd use their fists first.

“Hey, you Mex. You're a dirty, stinkin' Mex.” Dingle curled up his lip, showing broken and blackened teeth. “We told you and your kind to stay out o' town. Get out before we throw you out!”

Johnny stood up, tilted his head back and moved his hat to sit proper on his head. “I was just leaving.” He edged toward the door.

“Wait a minute.” Billy moved to block the way. “What are you doing here?”

“I'm leaving.”

Hands on hips, Billy puckered up his face. “I think you're gonna try to stop us.”

Johnny held up his hands, palms out. “No, no. I'm just passin' through town.” He stepped around Billy, got almost to the door before Dingle grabbed his left arm and spun him around.

“You ain't goin' nowhere, Mex.” Dingle pulled him forward and swung a left fist at his face. Johnny ducked to the side, used his right hand to push Dingle's arm across, then jammed his elbows hard into Dingle's left side.

Dingle wind-milled sideways and landed on the edge of a table. It tipped, and Dingle fell to the floor. Bottles and glasses rained down on him.

Johnny was halfway through the batwings when somebody grabbed his gun belt and pulled him back in. Johnny bent double and backpedaled hard, pushing off to somersault out the door when he felt the man let go. One of his feet caught on a batwing. Instead of rolling on up to stand, he had to scramble sideways. He grabbed for the chair sitting outside the door.

Dingle roared out of the bar. Johnny pushed the chair in front of him, but he kicked it aside and kept coming. The others followed. Johnny rolled off the edge of the boardwalk and under a hitch rail, putting it between him and the miners for a moment.

Dingle rushed him, face snarling, arms out and fingers ready to grab. Johnny sidestepped, ducked under an arm and pushed him on forward. Dingle fell to his knees.

Johnny got driven forwards as two miners piled on. He twisted, almost broke free. One grabbed his legs, and he fell backwards. His hat softened the blow when his head hit the ground, but lights still flashed in front of him. He kicked loose, got onto hands and knees and scrambled away.

Dingle hit him like a freight train. Shit, the man was heavy. Strong, too. Johnny struggled and kicked, but Dingle had him in a bear hug and took him to the ground again. Johnny wiggled, tried to push away. A kick clipped the side of his head, made his ears ring.

The miners were drunk and clumsy. That was in his favor, but five against one was handing him the short straw.

 

Chapter 3

Scott's stomach rumbled. It was almost dark and time for supper. He hoped Johnny had found that cook. From what Murdoch had said, a meal here in town would be one of the highlights of their trip.

Movement down by the jail caught his eye – a woman, followed by a large group of men. They walked up the street in an unnerving silence. The men looked angry and determined. Scott recognized the look on her face – hopeless resignation to fate.

She looked at him as she walked by, removing the red scarf from her head and draping it around her shoulders. Light from the hotel lanterns gleamed in her black hair, picking out a blue sheen. The men behind her growled.

Scott hopped down the stairs after they'd all gone by. Whatever was going on, it felt wrong. He followed the group as they headed through town toward the bridge.

There were yells and then a crash behind Scott. He turned to see a flash of red shirt as someone rolled into the street. It was Johnny.

Scott sprinted to help his brother and grabbed a miner about to kick him – used a right cross to send him reeling. He pulled another off Johnny – pushed that one away with an uppercut to the jaw. One more was within reach.

Something hit his head. He heard himself yell.

******

Johnny gasped, coughed, spat dirt out of his mouth and pushed up onto his knees. The miners had stopped kicking and punching him. He looked up, expecting to face a row of guns. Saw his brother lying face down in the dirt. “Scott!” He lunged toward his brother, but was grabbed by both arms and yanked back. He kicked at the miner who came up to pull at his gun belt.

“Be still, Mex, or I'll blow your friend's head off.”

Billy pointed a shotgun at Scott. Johnny froze and let them take his gun belt.

Scott dragged an elbow under his body, then a knee. Tried to push up. Billy kicked him in the ribs, made him fall and roll over onto his back. Henry pulled off Scott's rig.

“We got better things to do than mess with you two.” Dingle grunted in Johnny's ear. “Come on, boys, we're gonna miss out on the hangin'. Best toss these two in jail. We'll deal with 'em later.”

“What about the deputy?”

“You know Silas takes supper with Miss Maggie this time o' night. He won't get in our way.”

Scott tried to get up again. Two miners jerked him to his feet, then Dingle blocked Johnny's view of his brother as they were taken to the jail.

******

“Wait, what's going on?” An old man with a badge on his vest trailed after them – bandy-legged, huffing and puffing to keep up.

“Just some drunks, Silas.”

“Oh. Let me open the door to the cells.” He pushed through the men crowded into the jail's office, picked up the ring of keys from the desktop. “I thought I put these in the drawer.” He shrugged and turned to the door to the cells. It was open. “Now, I know I locked that before I left.” The deputy stuck his head into the cell block. The vigilantes shifted and grinned at each other. “Hey, that lady ain't in her cell! What happened? Where is she?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” said Dingle as Henry tossed Scott's and Johnny's rigs and hats onto the chair behind the desk. “We're locking up these two. You stay inside.”

“Stay inside? But if something's going on, I need to know. Sheriff Walter said I'm in charge.”

“Sure you are. And if you value the job, you'll do what we tell you. Give Henry those keys.”

Silas sucked his head down between his shoulders. He didn't seem to like being outnumbered, not any more than Johnny did. Johnny tried to catch a glimpse of Scott but reckoned he must still be out of it. Otherwise, his head would be above the men who held him.

“Let's take them on back, boys.”

Johnny tried to free his arms, but the men holding him just tightened down. He was pulled into a cell, shoved hard to the wall. The cell door shut as he found his balance and turned to watch Scott go by.

Scott half-walked and got half-drug to the next cell. The men laughed as they took him along. Scott said something, but it didn't make sense. That made them laugh harder. He got hung up in the cell door, and one man had to let go while the other took Scott to a cot and pushed him down onto it. Scott landed in a heap on his side and lay still, feet hanging off the side of the cot.

Johnny could see into the office. The deputy stood there, running hands back and forth over his head. “Hey! Hey! Deputy! You can't leave us in here! I want to talk to the sheriff!”

“Shut up. Too bad for you, the sheriff's out o' town for a couple days.” Dingle showed what was left of his teeth again as he passed Johnny's cell. “Silas, you go on home now. We'll take care o' things.” The door to the cells shut and locked, and the office light went out.

Johnny stepped up on the cot below the window. Tried to look out. Heard the noise of a crowd. Sounded like they were on the other side of town. It had gotten too dark to see anything out the cell window. It faced the wrong way, anyway.

The shouts and yells got louder. Then silence, followed by cheers and whistles.

Scott just lay there.

******

Damn it. His brother just lay there.

“Scott. Hey, Scott!”

Moonlight glinted off the cell bars. There was blood in Scott's hair and on his shirt. Seemed like a lot of blood. Maybe too much. Johnny grabbed the bars between the cells. There was a smell of sick, too. They must have hit him hard.

“Scott!”

Scott didn't move. Damned skinny man. Johnny couldn't tell if he was even breathing. He just lay there with his back to Johnny. Showing the blood. Lying still. Too still.

“Hey, Scott! Wake up, Scott!”

The bars were solid. He tried to shake them loose anyway.

******

A light came on in the office.

“Deputy! Deputy Silas!”

“You shut up back there!” The man sounded terrified.

“Hey! You need to check on Scott!”

Shuffling noises, and boots clomped on the floor. Keys rattled in the lock and jangled as if the whole ring had hit the floor. The lock rattled again, and the door swung open. Light from the front room lit up the cells. After the moonlight, it was bright. Johnny squinted at Scott while the deputy peered from the doorway.

“Nothing wrong with him. He just needs to sleep it off.”

“Look closer, deputy. That's blood on him! He isn't drunk. Somebody hit him! He needs a doctor.”

“Yeah? Well, you're out of luck. There's trouble in town, and the doc and sheriff ain't here.” Silas's knuckles white-gripped the ring of keys. “Trouble, bad trouble in town.” He looked like he wanted to run home again.

“Wait! There has to be somebody.” Johnny squeezed down the panic, the anger. Slouched and made his voice soft. “Please. Please just put me in the cell with him.”

“What do you care about him, anyway?”

“He's my brother.”

“Brother?” The deputy rubbed at his grey-stubbled chin. Walked over to Scott's cell door and opened it. “Hey, you.” He kicked at the end of the cot. “Hey!” Kicked Scott's feet.

Scott didn't make a noise. Didn't move, except what the kick made him move. Johnny gripped the bars again. He had to get in there, had to see if Scott was all right.

The deputy drew his gun and backed out of the cell. “I'm only doing this 'cause I'm going home. Don't know when I'll be back.” He waved the pistol at Johnny. “Stand with your nose to that back wall.”

Johnny obeyed. Keys clanked, and the cell door creaked.

“Hands behind your neck and come on through, nice and slow. Go in there, get down on your knees under the window.”

The gun followed Johnny as he went into Scott's cell. He caught a glimpse of chalky white face and a mess of blood in blond hair.

The cell door clanged, keys rattled it locked. The deputy retreated back to the office and locked that door as Johnny stood up and called out, “Thank you, deputy.” No answer, except for the office light blinking out.

Scott was cold and clammy. Johnny leaned over him, fumbled for his wrist and felt for a pulse. Couldn't find one. Tried to breathe and calm down. Tried his wrist again.

There it was.

Scott wasn't dead. Johnny bit down hard on his lips and blinked away the prickle of tears. Scott didn't need him getting all sentimental now.

Damn it. He should have brought the water bucket from his own cell. There was some in Scott's bucket, at least. Not enough to clean him up. He'd have to save it for Scott to drink. There was a blanket on the second cot. It was too thick to tear by hand until he'd poked it full of holes with a spur. He covered the gash on Scott's head with a folded piece of blanket, and tied it in place with his brother's neckerchief.

 

Chapter 4

He held onto the red. Red? Red – one of Custer's command? How could that be? He'd been captured before being able to fight alongside them.

How could it be one of Custer's men? The war was over, wasn't it? He thought it was. He had dreamed it was before, though. More than once. He pulled on the red, tried to pull himself to the surface.

******

The dark edges rolled back and Scott fought his way up into the light. Someone was holding him down.

“Scott. Scott, it's all right. Quit fightin'. It's all right. It's me, Johnny. Come on, Scott. Settle down.”

Scott blinked and focused on the fabric in his fist. Not a red necktie, but a whole red shirt. With needlework. Johnny's shirt. Johnny's voice. His brother, talking to him. “Johnny?” His tongue felt thick, and his voice wouldn't work right.

“Yeah, it's me, big brother. About time you woke up again.”

“Woke up? Have I been asleep?”

“Off and on. You got knocked out in the fight.”

“Fight? Have I been fighting?” It did feel that way. His head splintered, and below that pain his ribs ached. He tried to sit up.

“Whoa, there. Not so fast.”

Johnny pushed him back down. Scott closed his eyes again – the darkness preferable to what he thought he'd just seen. “Bars? Am I in jail?”

“Sorry. You are. We both are.”

“Why?”

“You don't remember?”

“Remind me.” Scott pressed a palm against his forehead. It felt like there was a bandage on his head. The pressure from his hand increased the pain.

“We got caught up in a fight with the crowd that took that woman away.”

Woman? What woman? Scott squeezed his eyes tight. That didn't help him feel better, either. Polly had left already, hadn't she? Had they found another woman who needed help?

A memory limped back. He was fighting, trying to get to Johnny. “You all right?” If he opened his eyes just a sliver, he could see better. The jail was too bright.

“I'll do. It's you I'm worried about. You've been in and out of it for hours.”

“Help me sit up.”

“Not a good idea, brother.” But Johnny helped him swing his legs off the cot, grabbed him under the arms and pulled him upright. Scott couldn't stifle a groan, and Johnny helped him lie back down. On his side this time. Damn, but his head was splitting. He breathed fast and shallow, fought back nausea and tried to ignore the pain from his ribs.

Johnny's hand was warm on his shoulder. Something scraped along the floor. “Take it easy. I doubt there's anything left to come up, but the bucket's here just in case.”

Scott swallowed bile. “Tell me what happened.” When Johnny didn't answer, Scott cracked open an eyelid. His brother crouched by the side of the cot and frowned at him.

Johnny lowered his head. “Tell you what, brother. I've told you at least three times. How about you tell me what you remember.”

“Very funny, John.” Scott ran a hand over his forehead again, then around to feel at the back of his head. Found an excruciating lump under a bandage and matted hair. Not good. “I was walking from the hotel. There was a crowd. A woman. Then ... I saw your shirt” – he waved circles in the air – “and here we are.”

“Close enough.” Johnny got up, reached through the bars to the next cell and dragged a blanket off the cot there. He shook it out and brought it over. “It's getting cold. You'll need this.”

Scott hadn't realized how chilled he was until the weight of the blanket settled on him. His mouth was dry and tasted foul. “Is there water?”

“Sorry, brother. We're fresh out.” Johnny tucked the blanket around him. “We're on our own 'til the deputy comes back. Try to go back to sleep.”

Scott didn't think he could. His head hurt. Breathing hurt. He was cold. The room spun around, faster and faster. He fell into the dark.

******

Scott woke up a few more times, still wanting to fight. Still couldn't remember how he'd been hurt. Johnny answered the same questions. Finally, Scott settled into a deeper sleep.

Johnny paced from cell door to window and back, over and over, rubbing his arms to stay warm.

It seemed like forever, but was probably only a couple hours later when the office light came on again. “Hey, deputy. Deputy Silas. Can I talk to you?”

The office door unlocked. The deputy let the keys clatter to the floor and came in with a lantern. He was rumpled and smelled of whiskey. He stared at Johnny with bloodshot eyes. “Can't do nothin' to help you. Couldn't even stop them hangin' that gal.”

If he and Scott didn't get out, Johnny'd be the scapegoat. Hanging Mex was sport in this town. Who knew what they'd do to Scott. “Yes, you can, you can help us. You can save us.”

The deputy swayed, bunched up his eyes and mouth. “No, can't.” He took a sobbing breath. “Can't save nobody. Only sheriff can.”

Johnny reached through the bars, palm up and fingers spread. “You can help us. You can help me save my brother. He needs a doctor. Please help me.”

The deputy blinked at him. “If you go out, they kill you too.”

“No, no, I'll be safe.” He gripped the bars. “I'll be fine. You can save us. Let us out, and I'll leave town. They'll never find me.”

“You did somethin' wrong, did you?” The deputy wiped his nose with his sleeve.

“No, sir. No, Deputy Silas, sir. We're passing through. Got caught up in all this. We'll leave town. They'll never find us. We'll be safe.”

“All right. All right, I do it.” The deputy bounced off the wall twice on the way to the office door, and almost fell over picking up the keys. He unlocked the cell and staggered back into the wall again as he pulled the door open.

“Thank you, deputy. You've saved us. You go on home now. That's where they think you are. You go home and be safe. None of this is your fault.”

“Not my fault.” The deputy snuffled and wiped his nose with the other sleeve.

“No, sir. Not your fault at all.” Johnny roused Scott and helped him to his feet. He ducked under Scott's arm, gripped his waist and a wrist tight. His brother might be skinny, but as dead weight, he wasn't all that light. Made it hard to grab their rigs and hats off the office chair. But Scott came to a little more and shuffled along with him through the office and out into the night.

The deputy wandered off with his lantern, mumbling, “Not my fault.” Johnny and Scott made for the livery stable. Could have got there faster if they'd walked in a straight line, but they made it. Johnny propped Scott in a corner and fished the hotel keys out of his pocket.

There was a celebration going on at the saloon. The noise helped him go unnoticed. Johnny made short work of gathering their gear and saddling the horses. Getting Scott onto his horse took longer, but he got it done. Bent Scott over and laid him out along the horse's neck. Johnny mounted Barranca and led Scott and his horse out of town. They couldn't make it far, but they'd find a place to hole up 'til morning.

Scott woke up just before sunup. The pump outside the abandoned shack still worked. Johnny cleaned the wound on Scott's head the best he could, and cinched a bandage on tight as Scott could stand it. The wound needed stitches, but at least the bleeding had stopped – mostly.

He needed to remember to thank Teresa for making sure they both packed bandages. Scott was shaky and pasty-faced, but drank and kept down some water. Was even able to get on his horse, after he'd put on a clean shirt. The blood on the white one would make him stick out like a sore thumb. Not that his bandaged head wouldn't, but still ….

It was slow going, but they had to go slow. Scott kept swaying sideways. Almost fell off a couple times. Lost his hat more than once, 'til Johnny tied it on with a length of bandage. Scott had to wear it. Even so, his brother kept squinting.

They made it out of mining country and over to find a cluster of buildings in what looked like a farming area. A livery, a cantina. What more could a man want at a time like this? Maybe he could find somebody to fix up Scott.

 

Chapter 5

Leaving the horses tied outside the livery, hat perched over his head bandage, Scott walked with Johnny to the cantina. They needed something to eat; needed provisions for the trail, too. Scott wasn't hungry but Johnny kept nagging him to eat. He found it difficult to walk straight. Johnny grabbed his arm several times to steady him as they crossed the street.

No one was in the cantina when they entered. Scott sat in the cool and dark front room while Johnny went through to the kitchen, calling out to see if anyone was there. A woman followed him back in, laughing about niños having no patience.

Her smile disappeared when she saw him at the table. She started lambasting him, talking too fast for him to follow – her voice a train whistle in his head.

Scott didn't want to cause more trouble, though he still wasn't clear on what the trouble last night had been about, or what his part in it had been. Johnny could calm her down. Scott pushed up from the table and ran a hand along the wall, her words lashing him across the floor to the door.

Sunlight pierced his eyes. He couldn't find a way to wear his hat which didn't interfere with the bandage or make his headache worse. A flush of heat sent fingers fumbling to undo his shirt, but his hands were shaking too much to find the buttons.

Not eating was for the best. He wasn't even sure he could have kept solid food down.

Spurs jangled behind him. Johnny stalked by with steps long and sharp. He untied his reins with a yank, making Barranca toss his head and dance backwards. Johnny moved with him until he settled. “Sorry, amigo.”

“Johnny, what's wrong?” Scott leaned sideways and put a hand on the corral fence to stop himself from falling.

“Nothin'. Nothin'. Get on your horse and let's get out of here.”

The world tipped when Scott straightened. He tried to grab the rail again, but it had moved. Scott found himself on hands and knees, gripping dirt, trying to get the earth to stop spinning.

******

“Damn it, Scott! Come on, let's get you in the shade.” Johnny hauled Scott to his feet and staggered with him into the rundown livery.

“You didn't answer my question. What's going on? I couldn't understand what she was saying, but she was furious at me.”

“It don't matter. Forget it.” He eased Scott down so he could sit with his back against a wall, and crouched beside him. “You need to rest.”

“It does matter. She was very upset.” Scott scrubbed at his face, hands shaking. “Something happened in town. I saw a woman. A women in a red scarf. What happened to her? Do you know?”
 
Scott was half out of his head. Maybe if he told him a little, he'd let it go. “She killed somebody.”

Scott's eyes got big and his jaw dropped. “But I saw her. Why were they taking her from jail, if she'd killed someone?” Scott wiped his forehead with a sleeve. “We were in jail. Did we try to help her?”

“You were trying to help me. Forget it, Scott!”

“But they were taking her somewhere. What did they do to her? Why won't you tell me?” Scott's head wobbled and he slid sideways. Johnny pulled him back up. “Was it something I did? She was mad at me. I can't remember. It must have been something I did.” Scott pressed a palm to his head. “We were in jail. Did I get us into trouble? Is it safe for us to stay here?”

Johnny should have known Scott wouldn't quit. It wasn't his way. Why was it so hard for him to believe Scott was Scott? Maybe because honorable men were few and far between. Johnny hadn't known many.

No, that wasn't true. He looked at the beads on his wrist. He'd known one. And he hadn't figured out the truth in time because he couldn't trust anybody back then. Who'd have thought he would've run across a truthful man of God? And in that place, of all places? Trouble was, most priests weren't worthy of the name. Most would talk a good line, but wouldn't walk it. Would preach at you, but didn't follow their own rules.

Scott was one of those rare, good men. He wasn't a lying sack of shit in sackcloth, or some useless make-believe soldier all duded up in officer's clothes. Scott wasn't only pretending to like him, to keep Johnny's gun on his side. Scott didn't seem to care he'd been a gunfighter, and was always trying to help him. Was always looking out for him. Standing up for him. Fighting for him.

Johnny had to accept it, couldn't try any longer to see it different. Despite everything that had happened since they'd got to Lancer – Pardee, Price, Barker and Evans, the Strykers and Foleys, Wes – he'd been waiting for Scott to show his true face. Because he hadn't fully believed – until now – that Scott was solid through and through. Scott was trying to make things right, like he always did, even though he was hurt.

But damn it, Scott was in no shape to do anything! Johnny slapped the wall and stood up, clenching fists.

“If you don't tell me what's wrong, Johnny, how can I help fix it?”

“Just give it a rest, would you?” Hands on hips, he leaned over his brother. “Some things can't be fixed.”

“I know that. But there must be something we could do.” Scott squinted up at him, face shiny with sweat. He didn't hold his head up long. “Tell me what I did. I can't remember. Tell me why she was so angry. Tell me what happened to the woman.”

“Shit, Scott.” Johnny drove heels into the dirt, making his spurs yell all the way to the barn door. What that cantina woman had said, what she'd accused Scott of doing ... it brought back the anger, the hatred he'd felt as a child for men who did those things. She'd lumped Scott in with those Gold Creek men. Because he was white.

Johnny wanted to hit something. Or kick something. His hand found his gun. He wanted to shoot something. Instead, he leaned an arm on the barn door and breathed hard, staring out at the horses.

He'd tell Scott what'd happened to the woman. Maybe then he'd forget about it and rest. Johnny paced back to his brother and spoke loud, even though it made Scott wince and turn his head away. The message had to sink in. “I'll tell you what happened to her, Scott. Those miners hung her. You hear me? Hung her! You understand what that means? Do you? I'll tell you what it means. You can't help her now. Nobody can.”

Scott's head drooped lower. His body sagged. He raised his head once more.
 
The look on Scott's face, in his eyes … It sliced through Johnny. Tore him open. Made the anger run out. As Scott bent his knees and hid his face on crossed arms, Johnny stepped back and slumped against the wall.

Somewhere, somehow, Scott had known that kind of suffering. Hadn't only read or heard about it. He'd lived it. The kind you couldn't claw your way out of. The soul-killing kind.

Johnny couldn't believe it. How could it be? Scott was good. What had happened to him? How had he survived? How had he not hit bottom? Good men didn't live through those things. They got ground down, chewed up and spat out dead.

What mattered, what Johnny knew now, deep to the bone, was there was nothing to fear from his brother. It sunk in, that truth. Scott could understand him – had always understood him – because Scott had lived in that dark underbelly, too.

All this time, Scott had looked out for him. It was time to return the favor. “Come on, brother, you need to rest.”

Scott's arms muffled his voice. “I need to apologize to the woman in the cantina. Only I don't know what I did to make her angry. Please tell me.”

“No, Scott. The only place you're going is in this stall to rest. I'm calling the tune on this one. You aren't going anywhere 'til you rest and eat something.”

Scott started to protest, but the way his hand went to his head, Johnny knew he'd won the round. His brother was fading fast. Johnny got him some water and left him to drink it, while he scouted the corners of the stable, gathering enough hay to make a Scott-sized pile. With Scott's bedroll on top, it would do. He helped his brother up and into the stall.

“Johnny, we can't stay here. If they're after me for what I did, you'll get in trouble.” Scott tried to pull away. “Get me on my horse, and I'll get out of here. You can't pay for something I did.”

Shit, Scott was doing it again. “It's all right. You're fine, Scott. Sit down. You didn't do anything. You didn't hurt anybody. We got mixed up in it by mistake. Lie down, now. I'll go back, explain it to the cantina owners. Word will get around. We'll be left alone 'til we're ready to head out.”

******

The dead woman and the woman in the cantina were cousins. While he waited for her to make some food, Johnny heard the whole story. Nothing he hadn't heard before. He already knew it was a man's world – even more so a white man's world, a rich man's world – and didn't need more proof. Somehow, women managed to survive through it. Some of them, anyway. They ought to know it wasn't a good idea to fight back, to make noise and draw attention to themselves.

Johnny didn't want to think about it. He had to think of his brother. Anything else was somebody else's problem. He ate his supper and had a beer which tasted mighty good after all that had happened.

He talked the woman into coming to the barn to doctor Scott. Johnny almost dropped Scott's bowl of food on the way back, juggling another beer for himself and a pile of bandages and towels. She carried her load in a basket.

They found Scott dead to the world. He came to dazed and confused and had trouble focusing on the woman when Johnny pointed her out.

“This here's Señora Gutiérrez. She's going to clean you up after you eat.”

“Ma'am, I'm sorry –”

“Shut up, Scott. She don't speak English.”

Señora, lo siento –”

“Shut up and open your mouth.” He scooped up a spoonful of food for Scott.

“What is that?” Scott pushed his hand away, tipping his head sideways and squinting down his nose at what was on the spoon.

“Your supper. Open up.”

“Johnny, I can feed myself.”

“Nope. You're still shaking too much. I do it, or she does. Your choice.”

Scott let him do it. Johnny had eaten the slop himself in the past. More than a few times. It was tasteless but stayed down no matter what.

After, Johnny held him up while Señora Gutiérrez did her work. Towels over Scott's shoulders, to keep his shirt clean. Good thing – it was the last one more-or-less still clean. Johnny winced at Scott's tremors and moans as she cleaned him up, cleaned the wound, trimmed the skin and hair around it. Scott passed out as she finished the sewing and bandaging. Johnny held him tighter, made sure he was breathing before putting him back down on the bedroll.

Señora Gutiérrez left with a pile of coins clinking in her basket. He gave her more than she'd asked for. He'd have paid anything to help his brother.

There was grass in the corral out back. Mostly dried up, but the horses would make do for the night. He laid out his own bedroll, guns and rifles close to hand. Ready for the night, he sipped his beer and watched Scott sleep.

If it was up to him – and it was up to him right now – Scott would never hear the whole story of what had happened in Gold Creek, or why. Because Scott wouldn't let it go. Especially if he heard the worst part. He'd go back and try to find a way to make all those men pay for what they did.

Johnny ran a finger around the beads on his wrist. He'd made the mistake before, not believing in a man who believed in him. That man died, because Johnny hadn't learned in time. It wasn't going to happen again. That shit town – those shit people – couldn't have his brother.

When his brother woke up, they'd go back to Lancer. Lancer needed Scott. Johnny needed him, too. He could admit that, now. But he wouldn't tell Scott. Wouldn't want ol' Scott to get a swelled head, after all. He couldn't get his hat on proper now as it was, what with the bandage and all.

 

Chapter 6

They camped by a stream. Cool water aplenty, grass for the horses and shade for his headaches. Being quiet and still for a few days helped him feel better.

His memories of events in Gold Creek were scrambled. Someday he'd get the full story out of Johnny. For some reason, he was reluctant to talk about it.

The ride back to Lancer took time. Scott knew they were overdue and hoped Teresa and Murdoch weren't worried about them. Johnny wanted to head straight for Lancer, with no detours to find a telegraph office.

His brother's support, and thoughts of Teresa's kindness and Murdoch's stern but loving guidance gave Scott strength. Each day he was able to remain longer in the saddle. The headaches stopped being so persistent, and his ribs were no longer sore. Though riding was physical, for some reason it had always made him feel better. He was even able to eat and sleep well again.

Until the last night before getting home, when Johnny's yells awakened him. The embers of the fire were low – Johnny was an indistinct lump in the darkness. He called out again and said words Scott couldn't decipher. Crawling to his side, Scott shook his shoulder. “Johnny. Johnny, wake up. It's just a dream.”

Johnny swung a fist at him. He managed to dodge it and not end up in the fire pit. “It's me, Johnny. It's Scott. You're awake now. Everything is fine.”

Johnny's eyes were bright spots in the dark. “Scott? Aw, shit.” He rubbed his face, tossed his blanket aside and walked to a nearby rock. He kicked the rock several times, then sat down on it without using his usual smooth control.

“Are you all right? It was just a dream, whatever it was.”

“Yeah, maybe. I don't take kindly to seeing you kicking at the end of a rope, Scott. Even if it is in a dream.”

“Oh. Well. That would be upsetting.” Scott stirred the fire's embers, and moved the coffee pot closer to the flames that sprang up. “Let's have some coffee.”

“Yeah, sure.” Johnny fidgeted and tapped his fingers up and down the sides of his calzoneras. He rolled the rowel of one spur up and down the rock he was sitting on. Now that was annoying. Johnny must have been too tired to take his spurs off last night.

"Will they ever go away, them dreams, do you think?"

That was a question out of the blue. Scott reoriented. “Which dreams do you mean? The ones about me? I didn't realize you were having bad dreams about me.”

“I have bad dreams about lots of things, Scott.” Johnny heeled his spur into the dirt, raking it up. “Sometimes about people I know.” The other spur took a turn at tilling the soil. “Sometimes about things I've seen.” Legs fell quiet, and Johnny fussed with the beads on his wrist. “Most often about things I've done.”

Scott poked at the fire. Sparks lifted up and winked out one by one. His own dreams had lessened the longer he'd been back from the war. There weren't so many reminders of it at Lancer. Nevertheless, a nightmare sometimes blindsided him. Now he thought about it, he was surprised he hadn't had one on this trip. They could be triggered by anxiety. “Dreams can seem too real, sometimes.”

“You have those dreams, too. Don't you? What do you do about them?”

“Well ... I tried many things. I do know that in the long run, wine, women and song don't work.” He chuckled at the memory of his former self.

Johnny snorted. “Yeah. I know what you mean. Tried those things myself. Drown your sorrows, somehow. Maybe even find somebody worse off than you.” Leg over a knee, Johnny brushed the dirt from his spurs until the rowels spun freely again. “It's bad, what men do. To women. You know what I thought of Polly. Guess when you're down, you're happy to see somebody down lower than you are.”

“That's the tragedy of the world, brother. There's always someone worse off than you. We can belittle or ignore them – or try to find a way to help.”

“That Utopia thing again?” Johnny's teeth flashed in the dark.

“Yes – a community founded on principle.”

“But there are bad people in the world. People who shouldn't be saved.”

“I know.” Scott put a log across the fire and used a sigh to encourage the flames. “I didn't say it would be easy. I don't say you should roll over for everyone looking for a victim, or sacrifice yourself for someone so kicked in they can't understand what help is. Those will take you down as they fall. I've seen some too far gone to ever come back.” For a while, he'd thought he himself was one of them. “Sometimes, all we can do is wish someone well and save ourselves in order to give the dead a decent burial.”

“What if you pick the wrong person to help? What if you can't forget?”

“Things do go wrong, even when you try to do right. Remembering makes you feel angry and sad. But I was lucky. Boston has a music hall, and I had friends who were talented musicians. Music is a balm and it became my haven, especially after the war. I could take you to hear some of it in San Francisco sometime, if you'd like.”

“I'd like that, brother. I'd like to see into your world.”

“And I'd love to show you. But we don't have to travel that far. Some of what helped me is at Lancer – in the bookcases. Poetry and philosophy. Many have lived through great tragedies down through the ages; some of them left us wisdom in what they wrote.” The fire popped and sizzled. “A good friend of mine was the regimental chaplain; he taught me how to believe in something larger than myself.”

“You mean God?”

“You could call it that.” Scott gestured at the stars. “Just look at it all.” He let his heart breathe in the boundless night sky.

Johnny looked up too. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“My chaplain friend inspired me to have faith in the unknown. I no longer fear it as I once did. We're lucky to be alive, Johnny, and we owe it to the ones who didn't survive to keep helping, to keep fighting for justice.”

“Is that it, then? You feel you owe somebody a debt?”

Scott stared into the fire. “Yes, that's right.”

“What if you don't pay up?”

“Then I will have dishonored their memory.” Scott knew the list of those he owed by heart, starting with the chaplain who was killed so pitilessly in the war.

“I guess we owe it to Uncle Malcolm to be the best men possible, since he never got the chance.”

“That’s a good line of thinking.”

Johnny fiddled with the beads on his wrist. He often did that when he was unsettled. Scott wanted to ask about the beads. He wanted to ask his brother about many things.

He moved the coffee pot away from the flames and waited for his brother to ask another question. When he didn't, Scott continued, “I was lucky in Boston to have a friend or two I could talk with – about things that matter. You're the only friend I've ever had like that who was related to me by blood. You're family in a way I've never had before.”

Johnny looked up from his beads and met Scott's gaze; nodded, and looked down again.

The firelight caught the glint of Johnny's unshed tears. Scott had to rub his own eyes at the thought his brother was beginning to trust him. “Talking about the past can help – if it's with the right person. It's better than pretending nothing happened.” He slid a thumb under the bandage around his head. The wound itched; moving the bandage a little reduced the sensation.

Johnny dug in the dirt again. “What do you dream about?”

“Probably the same things you do.” Though he'd been fortunate not to see Johnny hurt in his dreams. Not yet. “Sometimes a nightmare is a strange mix of events. Things that happened when I was afraid, usually. When you try to bury fear, it has a way of coming back even stronger, however it can. Even if it's just in a nightmare." He moved away from the fire's heat, and sat next to Johnny.

Johnny had a crooked smile on his face. “Then you do get scared?"

Scott laughed and cuffed the back of Johnny's head. "Of course I do. Why would you think I didn't?"

Johnny shrugged. “You never look it.” He tilted his head and grinned. "Teresa said you were only human, but I didn't believe her."

Scott chuckled and bowed his head. "Our little sister is very observant, I'm afraid."

Johnny bumped against him. “I'm afraid she is.”

Scott didn't want the humor to distract from the questions Johnny had asked. "Surely you had friends you could talk to about the things you'd seen and done?”

Johnny shrugged. “Yeah. I had people I knew, that I'd run into during range wars. Sometimes we'd even be on the same side. We did what we had to do. Killing's part of the deal. Sometimes other things, too. Showing it bothered you meant you'd lost your edge.” He unwound the beads from his wrist, then twisted them back on. He sighed as his fingers stilled. “It wasn't something we talked about. Because some don't mind doing the things they did.”

Killing was what it took to survive, sometimes. Soldiers and civilians on both sides did vile things in times of war – atrocities were committed. Some appeared to like killing and even seemed to thrive on hurting others. He would never believe Johnny was that type of man. “Not all for one and one for all, then?”

“What?”

“It's from a book about men who fight together. They had each other's backs.”

Johnny shook his head. “Not gunfighters. I mostly had to handle things on my own.”

"It took me years to come to terms with it – even now, I have to work on getting it out of me. The memories stick. Trying to ignore them didn't work. Many people don't want to hear or think about war, or any kind of bloodshed or violence. But pretending it never happened did not help me.”

“But you weren't alone. Didn't your grandpa help?”

“Grandfather didn't understand – it worried him. I felt he was ashamed and thought I should be able to recover quickly. Having a friend – someone who had also fought, or someone who could see and understand how violence changes people – having someone to talk to did help."

"You must have had good friends."

"I did."

"Did? They dead, then?"

"Most of them.” His list included those who had died in the failed prison escape. “The war killed so many.” His voice faltered. He stood up and returned to the fire to pour their coffee.

"Must have been hard, to lose an amigo del alma."

"Like losing a brother.” He handed Johnny his cup and shook the back of Johnny's neck before sitting beside him again. “That was before I knew of you, of course.” Now he did know, and was determined to never lose Johnny.

Johnny wrapped his hands around the cup and bowed his head. "I grew up hating. Was angry all the time. Saw how others were treated, saw how some looked down on Mama. The things they did – I get angry again just thinking about it."

"Being powerless kills the spirit."

“And I wanted power. I was a bad kid, did some bad things.”

“Seems to me you've fought to improve your life. Neither of us wanted to fit into a life others wanted us to live. We escaped all that when we got the chance. We've both seen and done things we'd rather not talk about. Made hard decisions and choices we regret.” He took a sip of the coffee. “What's important is you learned from your mistakes instead of sinking lower or making excuses for yourself.”

“I never thought I'd get out. That life can sure drag you down. Down deep.” Johnny pursed his lips and blew on the coffee. A grin spread across his face and grew into a laugh. “It can make you feel lower than Murdoch does when he's bawlin' you out.”

Scott laughed with him, remembering the last time Murdoch had yelled at them for bungling an unfamiliar task. Scott caught Johnny's gaze and held it. “It's good to see you laugh, brother.”

“Yeah, well, haven't had much to laugh about lately.” Johnny toed the dirt, then stared hard at him. “I thought you were dead back there, and it shook me up bad.”

“I know, I know.” Scott knew how close he'd come to dying – and would have, were it not for Johnny. “I’d feel the same about you.”

“You’re the only one who would.”

“No, Johnny! Teresa and Murdoch would never forget you. You’d leave a hole in our lives – a big one.”

Johnny stared into his coffee cup. “I guess I’m startin’ to leave a small ripple, then.”

“It’s more than a ripple to me; to Teresa and Murdoch.” Scott felt another pang of worry – by now, Murdoch could be out searching. He hoped Teresa hadn’t been losing sleep over them.

“Hey, you know I never thanked you for making it easier between Murdoch and me. I know you kinda soften him up for me. Teresa does, too. But somehow, it’s always been easier for me to thank her.”

“There’s nothing to thank me for – it’s all part of watching your back, just as you've been watching mine. That's something brothers should do. It's something Murdoch and Malcolm likely did for each other.”

Johnny placed his palm over the beads on his wrist. “I think Uncle Malcolm and Murdoch had each other's backs. Sure seems likely, the way he looked when he told us Malcolm was dead. I can understand why Murdoch's such a grouchy old man sometimes. I sure would be, if you died.”

“I believe it. You’re grouchy enough as it is.”

“Hey!” Johnny's chin poked toward him. “You’re the one who told everybody the other mornin’ to shut up 'til you had your coffee.”

“I didn't say 'shut up,' I said 'be quiet' – and I said 'please.'”

“Ah, nope.” Johnny poked Scott in the chest with his fingers. “Teresa told me later the way you said it was rude.”

“Rude!” Scott raised his eyebrows and a hand. “Why, I’ve never been rude in my life.”

They laughed so hard, they came close to tears again.

“By the way,” Scott said, wiping his eyes, “I apologized to Teresa. You and Murdoch are grouchy so often, though, I figured you two owed me one.”

They drank their coffee while the sky lightened and the birds woke up. The smell of coffee and campfire smoke mixed with the aroma of earth and trees. Scott tilted his head back and filled his lungs with peace.

 

 

~end~
February 2018

 

Authors’ note:
Lancer episodes referred to: High Riders, Blood Rock, The Lawman, Chase a Wild Horse, Foley, Dream of Falcons.

Events in “Things That Matter” are based on a historical, as well as historic, incident:

From Wikipedia:

Josefa Loazia, also more commonly known as "Juanita", was a Mexican-American woman who was executed by hanging in Downieville, California, on July 5, 1851. She was found guilty of murdering a man, Frederick Cannon, who attempted to assault her. She is known to be the first and only woman to be hanged in California. Many discrepancies exist regarding the circumstances of her death. Josefa’s death has many connections and relevancy to the larger history of Latina/os in the United States because it shows how her racial status affected perception of her and how devalued the life of a Mexican American woman was. Josefa’s death highlights the discrimination and violence against Latinos in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josefa_Segovia
 
Downieville is the location of the first hanging of a woman in California. Josefa Segovia, a young and pregnant Californio resident of the town, was lynched by a mob on 5 July 1851. The lynch mob held a mock trial, and accused her of killing an American miner that had harassed and attempted to assault her for several days. The mock trial quickly led to hanging her from the Jersey Bridge in town. Josefa Segovia remains the only pregnant woman hanged in the history of California.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downieville,_California

For more on the history of Mexican-Americans in California and the Greaser Act:
https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/5views/5views5b.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greaser_Act

 

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