Word count: 1,170
The coolness of the night made the dark-haired man shiver slightly. Northern California was different than the warmth of the bordertowns where he had spent much of his coming-of-age years. The heat of chiles and the knowing smiles of its senoritas were easily recalled when necessary. Fortunately, Maria knew of Johnny’s tastes and frequently made some of the dishes of which he was so fond, but it was not the same. The dusty towns, the cantinas filled with the laughter of men who had only a few pesos to spend, and the tormented delight of the fiery dishes could not ever be recaptured in the wealth and comfort of a ranch like Lancer.
The luminous moon shone down on the young man as he stealthily moved out behind the great white hacienda. His breath made white wisps in the night air as searched for his prey. Grumbling to himself, he cursed fools who preferred to be outside in the cold rather inside with a glass of Murdoch’s brandy. Of course, it was possible that the object of his search was afraid to be inside since he had promised to engage in an ‘affaire de combat’ with the black-haired tracker. The blond in question was certainly not a coward, but his prowess excelled in other realms, ones which the younger man was still not proficient at. As a result the duel was to be joined over a similar field, but fortunately one which had caught the fancy of the sapphire-eyed man. The artist with a gun had also displayed a formidable talent in the checkered field, even defeating the wisdom of the ages that the third member of their family was supposed to possess. The reaction by the patriarch to his occasional defeats had been a display of frustration and outright fury that had frightened the small female present, who had feared a conniption fit on the part of her guardian.
To assuage the anguished breast of the formidable rancher, the elder son had taken up the combat reluctantly. In that way, the younger son could win his games and yet the pride of the oldest Lancer would be preserved. Natuarally, after a few evenings of notable warfare, the blond had eventually won a game or two, but there was no question that it was not the easterner’s game so—as the impetuous younger man told himself—it was no wonder his brother was reluctant to challenge him yet again despite the fact that he had promised to do so. Johnny Lancer would not be the man he was if he let his brother off the hook.
Finally, after minutes of intense search, Scott Lancer was located sitting on a bench behind the house. To Johnny’s surprise, the Bostonian was looking up at the clear sky.
“Tryin’ ta git pneumonia or somethin’, Boston ? Won’t get ya out of playin’ checkers!”
For a long moment Scott said nothing, but then he murmured in a low voice, “Just didn’t want to take advantage of you, brother.”
“Whattya mean? Ain’t no way you’re gonna win.”
“Well, I don’t know after that dinner you ate. How many of those tortilla things did you put away? And the size of that piece of cake! It was bigger than the state of Rhode Island .”
“Was not!” Johnny protested.
“You ever been to Rhode Island ?”
Johnny reluctantly shook his head no.
“Well, I have so don’t argue when I say the piece was bigger.”
“Weell, anyways, what’s that got to do with you bein’ out here in the cold? Let’s go in and I’ll buy you a glass of Murdoch’s best brandy.”
“You just think I’ll get drunk and lose the game.”
“Don’t need to do that since I always win anyway.”
“Always?” Even in the dim light Johnny could see the flicker of amusement in the cerulean eyes.
“Oh all right, so maybe you’ve won a couple of games,” he conceded.
“Yes and I expect to win quite a few more in the coming months so I decided to give you a break tonight. I. . .well, I looked out the window in my room and I saw that moon and decided to come out here for awhile. I never get enough of watching those stars. It’s so different from Boston .”
“You mean they got diff’rent stars out east?”
Scott gave his brother an indulgent smile and a faint ‘haha.’ “You know what I mean. The stars seem to go on forever out here. I can almost imagine what it must have been like for travelers hundreds of years ago to look up and have to find their way across the great seas.”
“Yeah, I s’pose they didn’t have maps. Can’t make a map of water, can you?”
“It took real courage to find yourself a boat and head out into the vast openness of the ocean, not knowing if you’d ever return.”
“Hell, a man can ride from here to San Francisco and not be sure of comin’ back.”
Scott glanced over at his brother. “I guess that’s true. This country certainly hasn’t been tamed yet or else Day Pardee would never have tried his luck, would he?”
“Always be danger out here. Life’s too uncertain. Just gotta take it as it comes. You should know comin’ all this way from Boston . Bet you never thought ranch life would be so. . .interestin.” Johnny gave his brother one of his patented grins.
“I guess that’s one way of putting it and I suppose there will always be ways of finding adventure. Who knows, one of these days men might visit those stars up there.”
Johnny looked up at the blazing lights. “Why would they want to? ‘Nough to do down here.”
“Way I look at it, brother, a man always needs to have something to look for or a part of him dies–just like you. The question is, have you found it yet?”
The younger man couldn’t speak. A lump of fear clogged his throat. Finally, there was a whispered, “Hope so but I ain’t necessarily countin’ on it.”
“Perhaps that’s wise. What’s good now, may not be so good in ten, fifteen years. You survived because you were willing to change, just like this country has. I just hope that whatever changes come, we can see them together.”
The gunfighter looked up at the sky once again. “Don’t suppose them stars ever change, do they?”
“I’m not so sure about that, but I expect it takes a long time. Men don’t have that long so we have to do the best with what we’ve got now.”
“Sounds like a good idea, Scott. Whattya say we go in and sip some of that brandy?”
“No checker game?”
“Not tonight. Why don’t you tell me some more ’bout the places you’ve been? Do a little explorin’ of our own. That okay with you?”
“Perfectly and we certainly don’t need a map.”
The two shivering men went inside to continue their journey.
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