Word count: 4,976
Heat. The unalleviated scorch of the desert with no oasis in sight. The sun’s glare pierced the blue eyes resulting in a drumming, throbbing headache. Pain. Not only the agony of eyes and head but body. A body covered in bruises from numerous falls. Grit underneath fingernails that rasped against stone, adding droplets of blood to the battered hands. Another stumble, knees slamming into the hard earth. Surrender to the oblivion of despair.
The slender figure lay there for some time. Finally the chill of night caressed the wounded body. The eyes opened to look at the white landscape ahead. Squinting in pain from the day’s harsh glare, the young man took in the alien-looking ground. Which way to go? He knew that shelter was essential. For the moment it was cool, but dawn would bring the sun’s unforgiving rays which would again sear his flesh.
Struggling to his feet, the injured man took one step, then another. Each step was a challenge–keep going, don’t stop. Stopping meant death and he hadn’t survived a war just to die out here.
Scott Lancer’s head thrummed with the rhythmic cadence of the drummer’s route step. Just keep going, that’s all the Rebels had to do that July day and they did–not all, not many–but some did make it to that stone wall. Everyone knew about Longstreet’s Assault at Gettysburg. Of course, Scott hadn’t actually been there. On July 3, 1863, he was at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The next day would see the surrender of the hillside city after 47 days of siege. Rumor had it that the Confederate General Pemberton had chosen July 4 so that he could get better terms.
Maybe he had been right–he was from Pennsylvania. Mississsippi in July–the enervating erosion of mind and body in the pain, dirt, and violence of war–then, blessed silence. Of course, at that moment, no one–exept maybe Grant himself– knew that in a little town 1000 miles away Robert E. Lee’s proud Army of Northern Virginia had bludgeoned itself against the tenacious Army of the Potomac. Even then on that same Independence Day, that beleaguered army struggled towards the safety of Virginia.
Thoughts about the war flickered in and out of the blond’s fevered mind. Many a young man had come home from the war changed forever. It was probably inevitable considering the sights they had seen. Serving in the cavalry might not have been as hazardous as the infantry, but that old saying about no dead cavalrymen was undeniably false. Less than a year after that hot July day, the beau cavalier, JEB Stuart succumbed to a mortal wound inflicted by one of Custer’s cavalrymen.
Got to keep going. Got to find shelter. Got to…. The slender body toppled over in a heap.
The gunfighter’s body shivered–not in fear of an avenging bullet—but from hundreds of crystalline-lace patterns which melted down the back of his neck which his inadequate coat failed to protect. Damn! I hate these early spring snowfalls.
Johnny Lancer had gone off hunting. He had needed some time to himself. Lately he’d found himself thinking about his earlier years in the border towns. Then it had just been him and the gun he carried low on his hip. Sure, it had been a tough life. There was always the chance that someone faster, someone hungrier was out there. Someone who fancied being the killer of Johnny Madrid.
But that life–good or bad– had ended the day he became part-owner of Lancer. Certainly, people still came after him, but now he could reasonably expect to reach his 30th birthday and beyond. Instead of standing all alone in front of a firing squad, he now had a family.
It was because of one member of that family that he was now out on his horse freezing in the midst of the unexpected snowfall. The relationship between Johnny and Scott Lancer had started in Death Valley, but had rapidly climbed into the Sierra Nevada. Ever skeptical, the brunet had finally learned to trust his older brother. He knew that in a fight the blond would protect his back–maybe not with a fast draw, but definitely with a steadiness of purpose that Johnny had come to respect.
But that trust and respect now had a fracture in it. Thinking about the chance remark made by Scott, Johnny realized he should have stayed at Lancer to have it out with his sibling. Out here the crack seemed to be growing, collecting pus and infecting their whole relationship.
The younger Lancer had reacted with heated words, then slammed out of the white hacienda for a few days of “hunting.” It terrified him that for one instant his gun had almost cleared its holster. The hand had reacted almost on its own before the brain had called a halt to the potential violence.
This upheaval of his emotions had clouded the brunet’s judgment. The early spring was always chancy in the mountains near Lancer, but he hadn’t cared. He just knew he had to get away from his brother before he struck out at the older man and destroyed whatever bond remained between them.
Snow covered the landscape. The only sign of life was the tracks made by Barranca. Suddenly the horse slipped on an ice patch, but the sure-footed palomino righted himself to avoid a potential tragedy.
Patting the horse’s mane, Johnny noticed it was slick with ice. He knew he needed to find shelter soon for himself and Barranca. The snow would probably melt quickly then the two could return to Lancer.
Murdoch Lancer sat in his favorite chair reading a book sent from San Francisco. It told of some legends of the early settlers of California. Murdoch liked to think of himself as a kind-of pioneer. He had carved an empire with sweat and determination. True, he had sacrificed much to gain his empire, but now he was content. The reappearance of his two sons meant that Lancer would go on, even when Murdoch died.
“Murdoch, could I speak to you for a moment?”
“Sure, honey, what is it?”
“I’m worried about Scott and Johnny.”
“Now, Teresa, you know how they are. Sometimes they fight, but they’ll make it up.”
“Yes, but they’ve been gone for days.”
“Well, Johnny’s up in the mountains hunting. At least that’s what he said.”
“But what about Scott? Why would he go to Mexico and the border towns?”
“I don’t know. I was surprised when he said that too. He’s never expressed much of an interest in them before.”
“Teresa, do you know what they fought about?”
“Not really. They were in here and I was out in the kitchen. I could only hear a few words. . . . . One was mother.”
Murdoch looked down. The two women he had married had been so different– just like their sons. He had loved both women and was grateful that Scott and Johnny had become so close. He didn’t think that Catherine and Maria would ever have been able to be friends—even without Murdoch in the picture.
“Murdoch, I asked you a question.”
“Oh sorry, Teresa, I was…thinking.”
“Do you think some of the ranch hands could go out and look for them?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. They are grown men, but I’ll tell you what. It’s supposed to be a beautiful spring day tomorrow according to the Almanac so if a few hands want to ride out towards the mountains a bit–well, no harm done.”
The young woman smiled and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Murdoch. I’m sorry I’m such a mother hen.” Turning towards her room, Teresa did not see the look of consternation on the patriarch’s face.
The horse and rider moved slowly through the mounting snow. The cold had lulled the gunfighter into a daze. He seemed to be only dimly aware of his mount’s progress. Suddenly Barranca pulled up snorting clouds of steam into the chilled air. Jerked back to reality, the young man struggled to control the horse.
Puzzled by the palomino’s action, Johnny looked down into the snow just in front of him. At first he could see nothing, then there was a slight movement from one of the smaller mounds of snow. Jumping down, Johnny moved quickly to reveal that the mound was a man.
Turning him over the younger Lancer was startled to see a very familiar face. “Scott!”
At first Johnny thought his brother wasn’t breathing, but then he felt a pulse just under the jaw. “Scott, wake up! Why are you out here?”
Of course, there was no answer. Bewilderment filled the young man. He had to get Scott somewhere warm and dry so that he could find out the answer to his question.
Pulling the blond up took some effort as the sodden clothes added weight to the slender body. Finally he was able to hoist his sibling on to Barranca’s back. Now to find shelter.
Another hour’s ride saw the Lancers out of the deep snow. Here it was warmer and trees more verdant. Suddenly the brunet realized that they were not far from Edna Peabody’s cabin. He spurred the tired horse on and in a few minutes found himself in front of the cabin.
Hastily jumping down, he pounded on the door. Then he lifted Scott off the horse so that they could get inside as quickly as possible.
Opening the door, Edna stared in amazement. “Johnny, what are you….?
Then she glanced at Scott. “Bring him in. What happened?”
“Don’t know exactly. I went hunting. I thought Scott stayed at the ranch.”
Edna’s face registered surprise. She knew the brothers usually spent most of their free time together.
“Put him in here on the bed. We’ve got to warm him up.”
Johnny stripped the damp clothes off the still form. As he did so, he grimaced at the ugly gash marring the white flesh. It was inflamed and looked extremely painful.
Behind him Edna gasped, “We’ve got to clean that. I’ll go heat some water and get bandages.”
Johnny covered his brother with two blankets and a quilt, then sat down on the side of the bed.
What were you doing out there, Boston? What if Barranca hadn’t found you?
Edna hurried in carrying a basin of hot water and a mug of tea. “Drink this, Johnny.
“I don’t like tea.”
“Drink it anyway. I can tell that you’re mighty cold too.”
Now that he was sitting inside, he realized just how wet and chilled he really was.
“Can’t. I’ve got to go bed down Barranca.”
“There’s plenty of oats. Give him his fill.”
Soon the dark-haired man returned.
“Here’s some clothes my husband had. Go into the other room and change. I’ve already cleaned and bandaged that wound on Scott so you can just relax a bit.”
“You’re welcome. You know it’s not the first time I’ve had to take care of him.”
Johnny did know. On one other occasion Edna had rescued his older brother, and later on had joined with Teresa in drubbing the Lancer sons in a snowball fight. She was a mighty good woman in tough spots.
When he returned, he asked, “Scott’s still unconscious?”
“Yes, he’s got a bruise on the side of his head, but I think he’ll be all right once he gets warm. That gash is definitely infected; but now that I’ve cleaned it up, maybe he’ll begin to improve.”
Johnny’s shoulders sagged in relief.
“Now as for you, young man. You are coming into the kitchen with me, and you are going to eat some stew.” At his reluctance, she prodded him. “Don’t worry. We can hear him if he needs someone.”
“Okay. I am hungry.” After finishing one plate, Johnny started on another.
“So what happened between you and Scott?”
“How’d you know?”
“If you were out huntin’ on your own, you must have had a fallin’ out with him.”
Johnny nodded. “It was a rip-snorter all right.”
The brunet got up to pace. “He said…he said Murdoch married my mother because she was already carryin’ me. I told him it was a lie and then we exchanged…words. I ended up sayin’ I wished he’d never left Boston.”
Edna sat there in silence, contemplating what to say. “Johnny, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Scott was right.”
“Murdoch and Maria were in love and–well–they jumped the gun so to speak. They had intended to marry soon anyway so they just went ahead a bit earlier. Is it really so important to you?”
Breathless with surprise, the young man demanded, “Why didn’t Murdoch tell me?”
“Johnny, how many fathers go around telling their sons something like that? I didn’t find out myself until years later. Your father is a very private man.”
“Private? Hell, he’s practically one of those granite faces.”
Edna smiled. “But I don’t understand–why would Scott even mention it?”
The younger Lancer looked sheepish. “It was my fault. I said something nasty about his grandfather.”
“Harlan Garrett? You couldn’t have said anything that hasn’t been said before. He’s an ornery, cantankerous cuss.”
“But still he is Scott’s grandfather. I saw him looking at the silver frame with the pictures of Catherine and Garrett. I said something about the camera breaking.”
“Oh Johnny, you didn’t!”
Johnny grinned. “I did!”
“You are a rascal.”
“Yeah, well that’s when he hit me with something about at least Garrett didn’t change dates on marriage licenses.”
“How did he know about your father doing that?”
“You mean it’s true?”
“Yes, well, he was afraid that someday you might see it and question the timing. Of course, that was before your mother….”
Johnny ran his hand through his dark hair. “I really messed up, didn’t I? I was just so angry that he would say stuff about my mother. I…he…we got into it about how he seemed to think his mother was this… angel–while mine was some kind of tramp. That’s when I told him that he should have stayed in Boston if they were so perfect there. Then I slammed out and yelled that I was goin’ huntin’. Damn, why don’t I think before I do this stuff?”
“Johnny, don’t be so hard on yourself. We all make mistakes.”
“Yeah, but this one could cost me my brother. What if he does decide to go back to Boston?”
“Worry about that later. First we have to get him through the night.”
Edna heated some stones she kept just for that purpose. Tucking them in around Scott she urged the other young man to go to bed as well.
“Later,” was his only reply.
The night’s march continued on. Johnny slept intermittently while sitting in a chair. Two hours later Scott opened his eyes. At first he couldn’t understand where he was or how he had come to be there. His eyes closed again only to open wide when called by his brother.
The memory of their last encounter caused a frown on the handsome face. “Johnny, where am I?”
“Edna Peabody’s cabin.”
Edna appeared through the door. “Scott, how are you feeling?”
“Fine. Just cold.”
“I’ve put some logs on the fire. Here’s some hot tea.” To the parched throat the tea was heaven. “That will help you feel warmer. Now I’m going to heat up some stew. I’ll be right back.”
Johnny just stood there looking at the blond. Then, “Why were you out there?”
“I was following you. I tracked you up into the mountains until I lost your trail. The snow caught me by surprise.”
“But why were you on foot?”
“My horse went down on an icy patch. I was thrown against some rocks. I must have hit a couple of places because when I awoke my head hurt like the devil and my side was bleeding.” He winced as he tried to sit up.
“Now, Boston, just stay quiet. Edna did a good job bandaging your wound, but it will start bleeding again if you move too much.”
“That’s good advice,” added Edna as she hurried in with the stew. “Now I want you to eat some of this and then go back to sleep.”
After two spoonfuls, the cerulean eyes closed.
“Well, that’s one stubborn Lancer down! Now what about you, Johnny? A few more hours of shuteye will do you good.”
“All right. I am tired. I’ll just sleep here on the floor.”
“Fine. I’ll get some more blankets.”
When she returned, she found the dark-haired Lancer asleep as well. She slipped a pillow under the weary head, then covered him. “That’s two stubborn Lancers down!”
At dawn Scott awoke reluctantly. Opening his eyes, he discovered that his head no longer felt like Edward Porter Alexander’s cannonade just before Longstreet’s Assault. Now it was more manageable–like a 12-pounder firing a 21-gun salute. Sitting up, his side burned with prickles and flares. Maybe if he didn’t move for a bit….
Just then he noticed Johnny on the floor beside the bed. Remorse flooded his soul. His thoughtless remark had driven his brother away from Lancer–away from him.
Oh God, Johnny, I am so sorry. He covered his face with his hands, but could still see the stricken look on his younger brother’s face just before he stormed out the door. Maybe he’s right. I should have stayed in Boston. Then I wouldn’t be able to hurt him like this.
“Scott?” Edna whispered. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. Just sore.”
“Here are your clothes. They dried in front of the fire.”
Looking down Scott realized that he was naked under the blankets. Luckily his blush wasn’t noticeable under his sunburn. “Uh thanks, Edna. I would like to get dressed.”
Unfortunately even the simple act of slipping on a shirt made his heart pound while sweat poured down his body from the pain. Maybe that could wait too. Again closing his eyes, he returned to that moment when Johnny had fled the house. It was obvious that the young man had been hurt by Scott’s disclosure. Truthfully the older man was surprised at Johnny’s reaction. After all, he was not some maiden aunt. An active interest in sex was a reality of his young life, but the fact that it involved his mother and father made the difference.
It was difficult thinking of Murdoch in that manner. Both Scott and Johnny knew that Murdoch enjoyed the company of several different women, but he had married only two. For an instant Scott tried to picture Murdoch as he must have twenty-five years before, however no image would come. Maybe one day he would ask Edna. She had known Murdoch for a long time.
“Hey, Boston, how ya feelin’?” Sapphire eyes looked at him with concern.
“Better. At least being out in the snow got rid of my fever.”
“Yes, after hitting the rock, I started to walk. After awhile, I must have developed a fever. I remember feeling like I was burning up. I guess the sun’s glare didn’t help either. It was just like that time out in the desert.”
“Scott, after you lost your horse why didn’t you head back to Lancer?”
“I thought about it but…I needed to see you. I had to tell you how much I regretted what happened.”
Hesitating Johnny replied, ” No, I’m the one who should be apologizing. I don’t know what came over me. For one moment I almost…hated you. I thought you were lying about my mother.”
Despair flashed across the blond’s face. In an almost-whisper, “Johnny, do you really think I’d lie to you about something like that?”
The brunet could only shake his head no. “That’s the trouble–I didn’t think, I just reacted.”
The older man nodded. “I know. I did the same thing.”
“Scott, Johnny? Are you hungry? I’ve made some flapjacks and coffee.”
Johnny turned to face Edna. “Oooeee, Edna, that sounds great. Haven’t felt much like eating the past couple of days.”
“Well, come on out then, I’ll make you a stack.”
“Uh Edna, would you mind if I stayed in here?”
“Sure, Scott. That’s probably a good idea. I’ll bring you a plate.”
Johnny went out to the small kitchen with Edna to secure breakfast for his older brother. “I’ll take this to him and then I’ll be right back.”
Surprisingly, the young man immediately returned plate in hand. “He’s asleep.”
“Oh well, it will do him good. You eat those and I’ll make some more when he wakes up.”
It didn’t take long for the younger Lancer to reduce the stack of flapjacks to a puddle of syrup. “Those were great. Teresa hasn’t made flapjacks in a long time.”
“She’s got a lot of work to do around your place with you three men.”
“Yeah, I guess she does.”
Relaxing with coffee cup in hand, Johnny turned to face the older woman. “Edna, what was Murdoch like when he was younger?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just hard to….
“You mean it’s hard to think of your father being attracted to a woman?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, you must remember I never met your mother. I only know what he told me. One time not long after my husband died, we got to talkin’. He told me how beautiful she was and that they–well–loved each other before sayin’ their vows. I guess he thought I’d be so shocked I’d never speak to him again. But you know Johnny, there was a lot of people who were shocked when I married my Jim. He was years older than me. I’ll never forget how cruel some people were. I guess that’s one of the reasons Murdoch didn’t want it to get out. The talk was bad enough when your mother left.”
The brunet flinched.
“Believe me, I don’t know why she left, but I do know it hit your father hard. Jethro Cobb once told me that they went on a three-day binge afterwards.”
Thanks, Edna. I just…well, it’s not something I could ask Murdoch about. He gets all scratchy when I mention my mother.”
“I’m sure he does. Deep down, I think he knows that even though he did love both Catherine and Maria, he wasn’t as good a husband as he could have been.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Johnny, most women when they marry like to think that they are the most important thing in their husband’s life.– I know I was to Jim.– Somehow I don’t think Maria felt she was to Murdoch. She had a very powerful, seductive rival. Finally, I think she couldn’t stand it anymore. She just needed something Murdoch couldn’t give.”
“Mind you, I don’t know for sure that’s the way it was, but I have no illusions about Murdoch’s singlemindedness. He has been a good friend to me, but I would no more think of marryin’ him than I would of romancin’ President Grant!”
The two sat there for some time. Then, “If Scott’s better tomorrow, I think we’ll try to make it back to Lancer.”
“And if he isn’t?”
“Then I’ll ride back myself and get the buckboard to get him home.”
“All right, but talk to him some more. You two were given a second chance to be brothers. Please don’t let pride ruin your relationship.”
“You’re one smart woman, Edna”
“Why thank you. Now why don’t you go see if that brother of yours is awake and ready for some of my flapjacks?
In the end Johnny and Scott did ride double on Barranca. The two days of rest had perked up the golden horse so he easily carried the two Lancers home.
The trip was not so easy for Scott, but he survived the ordeal with little comment. Even though both men had expressed regret for their confrontation, they both knew that there was still much to be resolved between them. Nevertheless, they were both grateful to see the white hacienda at the end of their ride.
While Murdoch and Jelly carried Scott inside, Johnny headed to his bedroom so that he could change into his own clothes. He knew that Murdoch would make sure that the doctor would come to look at his brother’s wound.
Before putting on the clean clothes, he felt the need to scrub himself clean so he headed to the bath house, determined to soak away the grime and debris of the last few days.
Emerging from the bathhouse, he saw the doctor’s carriage. He realized that he should go in to see what the man had to say about Scott’s condition, but something held him back.
Instead, he strode over to the stable to give Barranca a more thorough grooming than he had had time for earlier. Just the simple act of brushing the palomino soothed the young man’s fears. The gunfighter, who had faced down dozens of other gunslingers, couldn’t bear to look into his brother’s eyes and see only rejection. Then he heard footsteps behind him.
“Johnny? Scott’s asking for you.”
The brunet turned to face his father. “I’ll be there in a little while.”
Murdoch glanced at his younger son. “Don’t you think you should….?”
At the look on Johnny’s face, he stopped, hesitated. “Johnny, I know you two had an argument. Was it about…your mother?”
The young man straightened his shoulders, then walked over to where Murdoch stood. “He told me that when you married my mother she was already carryin’ me. Is it true?”
Murdoch’s face hardened. “I could say it’s none of your business, but I suppose that’s not exactly true. . . .All right, I’ll say this once and then we’ll never discuss it again. I wasn’t always this old, you know. When I was younger, I felt the same needs as any man. After I lost Catherine, I didn’t look at other women for a long time. Then I met Maria. She was so beautiful. Well, things happened. When we discovered she was with child, we just moved up our wedding date.”
“And later changed the date on your marriage license?”
Murdoch’s eyes opened wide. “How did you know that?”
“Doesn’t matter now.”
“No, I guess not. . . . .Johnny, I loved Maria. I was so happy we were going to have a child. Since I’d let Scott go, I thought this was a second chance to have a family. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.”
The two men stood there just looking at each other.
“You know, Son, when I asked you and your brother to come to Lancer, I didn’t really think much beyond saving the ranch from Pardee. I didn’t think about the consequences if the two of you didn’t get along. Luckily for all of us, I didn’t have to worry. I’m glad the two of you are close. I regret that you were apart all of those years, but don’t let what happened twenty years ago destroy your future together. You need each other and Lancer needs both of you.”
The tall man stared into his son’s sapphire eyes. “Now what do you say about going in to talk to Scott?”
Johnny nodded. He walked into the house behind Murdoch who went over to his desk to sit down. Johnny hesitated. “Well, go on.”
The brunet opened the door to Scott’s bedroom. “Boston, you awake?”
“Sure, come on in.”
The younger Lancer stood close to the door. “Murdoch said you wanted to see me.”
“Yes, I do.” The blond struggled to sit up so that he could see his brother’s face.
“Johnny, I want you to know how sorry I am about the things I said to you.”
“You were only tellin’ the truth.”
“That’s not the point. I hurt you for no reason.”
“I insulted your grandfather.”
“Well yes, but I’ve said worse things about him myself. I don’t know why I reacted the way I did. I just hope you can forgive me, and we can go on from here.”
The dark-haired man stood there, his face almost ruthless in its aloof attitude.
“But if you can’t, I’ll go back to Boston. My grandfather will let me stay with him and, after all, this is your home now. Just tell me what you want.”
The fear in the cerulean eyes destroyed the last defenses Johnny had built around his emotions. He walked closer to the bed, kneeling down so that he was at the same level as Scott. “I want you to stay here. I want us to be brothers, partners and best friends. I want to know that you’ll always be out there protecting my back just as I’ll always protect yours. And if we’re really lucky, I want us to grow old together. That’s what I want.”
Looking into the sapphire eyes, Scott knew that the words were true. “You know, Little Brother, I want all of that too.”
“Good. Then we’re in agreement?”
“Yes, except that I want one other thing.”
“What’s that?” A cold knot of terror formed in Johnny’s stomach.
‘Teresa baked some cookies today. Do you think you could bring me some with a cup of coffee so I can dunk them?”
The brunet burst out laughing. “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t realize you were a dunker when I proposed this agreement.”
“Oh, that’s just one of my vices.”
“You have other vices, Boston? Whoa, I’ve got to hear about them.”
“Well, go get the cookies and two cups of coffee and I’ll start listing them alphabetically.”
As Johnny headed towards the door, Scott caught his attention. “Little Brother, one thing more. Thank you.”
The younger Lancer turned and swept a half-bow. “My pleasure, Big Brother, my pleasure.”
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