Word count: 6,486
Scott Lancer pulled his hat down closer over his ears. What had started out as a misty day at Lancer was now cold and windy, forcing his poncho to occasionally blow away from his body with a snapping sound. The first time that had happened, the horses pulling the wagon had started at the noise. Instead of continuing on, Scott had stopped, soothing the pair with a few words before moving off towards the line cabin where he intended to stay for the next few days in order to repair some of the fencing which had been damaged due to a flash flood on one of the ranges.
Normally, the older of the two Lancer sons would have had several ranch hands to help him, but due to several mudslides and flooding on other parts of the ranch, Murdoch Lancer was spread thin for workers so Scott had volunteered to go out alone.
In truth he preferred to be on his own because of the tension between him and his brother Johnny. The two young men had only met a few months before and were still feeling their way into a relationship. While it was true that Scott had saved Johnny’s life when Day Pardee had attacked the great ranch, it seemed to count for little in the scheme of things when the half-brothers were so different in upbringing and personality.
Confident in his ability to learn quickly about ranch life, Scott had listened to the counsel of his brother, father and some of the hands in the early days until he was satisfied that he could handle most of the work. He still made mistakes of course, but for the most part he was pleased with his progress. What he was not pleased with was Johnny’s continuing need to treat him as a greenhorn.
Just the day before Johnny had insisted that Scott wasn’t ready to tackle the fencing on his own, however, Murdoch had overruled his younger son’s objection with the simple announcement: “Scott goes alone.” The tall rancher simply did not have enough men as it was.
Johnny had opened his mouth to protest, but Murdoch walked out of the room. He had other things on his mind. Scott had then walked over to his brother, wanting to reassure him that he would be able to do the job, but instead Johnny had grabbed his hat and left the hacienda, not returning until after Scott had departed early the next morning.
Reaching the cabin some time later, Scott hurried inside after taking care of the horses and making sure that the load of posts and wire were secure under a lean-to.
Once inside, he pulled off his wet clothes, hanging them over rung-backed chairs, and prepared to build a fire to warm up. Fortunately, the fire lit easily so the small cabin soon warmed as did Scott who wrapped himself in a blanket and eagerly drank down a cup of strong coffee.
The blond young man had hoped to get some of the fencing prepared this day, but the skies opened up much as they had earlier in the week so he was content to stay in the cabin knowing that once he started his back-breaking work, he wouldn’t stop.
Taking out a book wrapped in oilskin that he had brought with him, Scott pulled the oil lamp closer and began to read by the light of lamp and fire. The book, Les Misérables, was a favorite of his since the story of Jean Valjean’s plight had always stirred his imagination. Injustice seemed to be the way of the world despite the good will espoused by so many men. Never had that been more evident than in the great war which had ended only five years before.
After a dozen pages, Scott’s eyes grew heavy. Dawn would come early and with it the need to rouse his body to the task so he blew out the lamp to curl up in his blanket, letting sleep overtake him.
Startled by the sound of his horses knickering in the early morning light, Scott grabbed for the jeans he had left to dry. Picking up his holster, he looked out through one grimy window, but could see little. Carefully, he opened the door, keeping his gun in his right hand, not wanting to be caught by gunfire. “Who’s out there?” He called into the wind.
No one answered except for another sound from one of the horses. For a moment he thought about what to do. It could have been an animal that had disturbed the two horses, but a prickle at the back of his neck – – the same feeling he had during the War when a bullet had missed him by inches – – warned him that he wasn’t alone.
After slamming the door shut and sliding the bar into place, Scott quickly pulled on his boots and the poncho over his bare chest. Grabbing his rifle, he then unbolted the door before slipping outside into the gloom, keeping low to camouflage his body against the side of the cabin. Grateful that it wasn’t raining, he moved over to the lean-to to check on the horses and the wagon, only to find everything as it should be.
Making a quick exploration of the area in the growing light of dawn, Scott finally decided that it must have been an animal which had caused the reaction of the horses because there was no one there but himself.
Chiding himself for skittish behavior, Scott returned to the cabin to make a sketchy breakfast before hitching up the wagon. It would be tough going with the wet ground, but he wanted to get a start on his work. It was, after all, what he was there for.
Working steadily, he pounded the posts into the soft earth. It was messy and taxed his muscles, but it was still easier than dealing with the hard-baked earth of a drought period when it took hours to complete a small fraction of fencing. Stringing up the wire wasn’t easy either as his gloves had become slick with mud and other detritus, but he kept going, stopping occasionally to slake his thirst from the canteen he’d brought with him.
At high noon, Scott stopped for a quick meal and the chance to build a fire so he could enjoy a cup of coffee. This was one thing he had never forgotten from his years with the Army of the Potomac. As soon as the soldiers had been given any free minute, the pot had been put on to boil. Most of it was dreadful of course, but at least it was real coffee.
When he had been captured and thrown into a prison camp, coffee quickly became a thing of the past. The Confederates relied on ground acorns and whatever they could find to make coffee so obviously prisoners made do with even worse unless they were part of the gangs who roamed the camp and often made deals with the guards.
Staring into the campfire, coffee cup in hand, Scott jumped when the fire exploded with the unmistakable thud of bullets hitting the wood. Heart thumping with adrenaline, Scott threw himself flat, reaching out for his carbine in almost the same motion, but the sound of another bullet hitting nearing his head stayed any effort to fight back.
From a distance a voice yelled out. “You there at the campfire. Ya got any food t’ spare?”
Still flat on his belly, Scott shouted back, “You shoot at a man and then ask him for food?”
“I aimed at your fire. If I’d been aimin’ at you, you’d be dead. Now, do you have food or not?”
“I’ve got some. You’re welcome to it if you put the gun down and come in with your hands up,” Lancer announced in a loud voice.
“You must think I’m stupid. You git up slowly, put what you got in a bag and then walk over to that big tree yonder. Leave the bag and then go back to your fire.”
“Now, you’re the one who thinks I’m stupid. I get up; you drill me and take everything.”
No one answered for a moment then in a quieter voice, the man answered. “I ain’t a killer. Maybe I killed some Yankees in my time, but I ain’t a killer. ‘m just hungry.”
Scott lifted his head slightly. It was an awkward angle, but he could just see a kneeling man in the distance with a rifle aimed in Scott’s direction. “If that’s true, I’ll give you a chance. I’m going to stand up then at the count of three we’ll both throw our rifles down.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“You don’t, but how hungry are you? Besides, I was a soldier too so I know what it is to have an empty belly.”
“You a Yank?” The voice inquired.
“Massachusetts cavalry. You?”
“Fought for Jeff Davis. 8th Missouri.”
“War’s long over. C’mon in. There’s plenty of food.”
Still the man hesitated. “I’d like to, Yank, ‘s just there’s somethin’ you don’t know.”
“What else do I need to know besides the fact that you’re hungry? My name’s Scott Lancer by the way.” The blond slowly got to his feet.
“Just don’t want ya t’ be shocked, s’all. You see I was captured, spent some time in a prison camp. Me ‘n my brother that is, we was both captured. T’weren’t there but a month when he come down with smallpox. I nursed him, best as I could, but, well, I come down with it too.” The former Confederate hesitated. “My face ain’t much ta look at.”
“Doesn’t stop you from eating, does it?”
“Lordy no, ain’t nothing wrong there.” The man chuckled. “‘s like I say, some folks lose their food when they see what I look like.”
“Have you got a name?”
“Will Neely, private in the 8th Missouri.”
“Well, Will Neely, I was a lieutenant in the cavalry so if you don’t mind eating with a former officer, c’mon over and fill your belly.”
The former private practically ran the distance from his position to the campfire then stopped as he got close enough for Scott to get a good look at him. He gave Scott time to decide and then asked in a low whisper, “Ya still want to share yur food with me?”
Scott could barely stop himself from wincing at the scarred face of the man opposite him; pitted pox marks having severely damaged the face of a once-handsome man. “I’ve seen worse,” Scott replied smoothly. “Man from my regiment lost part of his jaw to a Confederate minié bullet.” Scott hesitated and then asked again, “Are you hungry or not?”
This time Neely didn’t hesitate. The smell of coffee was a siren to the man’s parched throat. “Thanks for the invite. My haversack’s plumb empty.”
“Sit down then. There’s bacon and beans and coffee of course.”
Neely immediately began to dig in. Eating faster than a ravenous wolf, the man shoveled in the food at an alarming rate.
“Slow down; you’ll make yourself sick at that rate and who would that help,” Scott counseled with a knowing wisdom.
Will tried to grin, but the food in his stuffed jaws wouldn’t let him. Forcibly swallowing the beans, he took a deep breath before admitting, “Been too long since I had food like this. Think it was just before I. . .we left for the War. Ma she cooked up a mess of beans ‘n greens, flavored with some bacon she’d saved. Me ‘n Johnny ate four big platefuls.”
“My brother, ‘nother private in the 8th. We was both captured at Helena on Independence Day. Fancy that. Like I said, month later he was dead and I woke up like this.” Neely set the partially-full plate down on a nearby rock so that he could take a drink of the coffee.
“Where was this?”
“Hell hole in southern Illinois, near Alton. We was put on some island in the Mississip which the Yanks used as a smallpox hospital. Lord it was miserable. Men were dyin’, cryin’ for their mommas. Never been so cold in my life as the winter of ’63.”
“You were captured on July 4, 1863?”
“We surely was, ‘course nobody heard ’bout us. All you heard was ‘Vicksburg, Vicksburg.’ Lost nearly 400 men kilt that day and all for nothin’! We was supposed to relieve the pressure on that Yankee Pemberton and all’s we did was git a lot of men kilt or captured. Damn stupid attack!”
Scott said nothing for a moment then quietly remarked, “I was at Vicksburg. On the other side of course.”
Neely’s eyes opened wide in the ghastly face. “Thought you said you was an east’ner?”
“I did go east right after Vicksburg. Served with the Army of the Potomac in Grant’s Overland Campaign. I was captured during the Wilderness battle. Spent the rest of the War in Libby Prison.” Scott kicked at the dirt with the toe of his boot. That year in prison was not one he liked to remember.
“Never been to Richmond, but I ‘spect one prison’s as bad as t’other. Makes a soljer fergit he’s a man bein’ locked up like that. Guards treated us worse ‘n dogs. That way for you too?”
Scott nodded, his face shining with sweat. “Had nightmares about Libby for years.”
“Know what ya mean, onliest I never woke from the nightmare. I carry it with me night and day.” Neely picked up the plate and began to eat again. “Sometimes I dream that I still look the same as when I jined up at seventeen then I wake up and see my face in the lookin’ glass and know I’ll be this way the rest of my days.”
Seeing that Neely’s cup was empty, Scott leaned forward to pick up the pot to fill his guest’s cup. “So what are you doing out here anyway? This is private land.”
“Figgered it was when I saw them fences, but I was hopin’ to find some kind of line cabin, borrow some food as it were and be on my way. I skirt most towns if I can. Folks don’t like to see a face like mine, not even my own kin, not that many are left anyway. Went back after I left the Alton prison. Ma was dead ‘n one of my cousins took over our place. He put a shotgun to my head and ordered me out of the house where I was born!”
“So you’ve been on the move since the end of the War?”
“Mostly. Took coupla of jobs where they didn’t care what I look like, but they didn’t last long. Finally, made it out here where it’s warm ‘n my bones don’t ache so much.”
Scott’s blue eyes focused on the other man. “I had the same problem at Libby. It was always hotter than hell or colder than ice. Boston wasn’t much better when I returned home.”
“‘s that why you moved out here?”
“No, I came out here to live with my father and brother. His name is Johnny too. This is our ranch.”
For one moment the scarred face grimaced before Will whispered, “You’re a lucky man. All this and a family too.”
“I know. Too many men on both sides lost everything.”
When Neely remained silent, Scott picked up the empty plates and his tin cup. “I really need to get back to work. I want to get this fencing done in case we have more rain.”
“Could ya use some help? Don’t like takin’ food if I can work for it.”
For a minute Scott was ready to refuse but changed his mind. “As a matter of fact, I could use another pair of hands. Because of the rains, we’re short-handed so I came out on my own.”
Taking a deep breath, Neely let it out slowly, his relief obvious. “Let’s get to it then. Never know what kind of weather might come out of those mountains.”
The two young men set a good pace for the rest of the afternoon. As darkness approached, Scott suggested that Neely spend the night at the line cabin so that they could finish the job the next day. When Will didn’t immediately jump at the offer, Scott started to back off, explaining, “I’ll pay you for working tomorrow. I don’t expect you to do it just for a meal.”
“‘s not that. Just don’t need pity like some of those damned church ladies I’ve met up with. One of ’em screamed bloody murder when I come upon her then tried to convince me she cared ’bout my soul. When I tole her that she could keep her Bible charity, she starts yellin’ that my face was God’s punishment for slavery. I tole her I never had no slaves, but she wouldn’t listen.”
Scott could hear the pain behind Will’s words. “This is not charity and it isn’t pity. If you help me tomorrow, I’ll be done that much sooner. So do we have a deal?”
For a moment Will stood there slouched over, unsure of what to do. Finally, he decided to trust the former Union officer. “Looks like it, Yank, and I ‘ppreciate it.”
After another meal of bacon and beans, the two men settled down for the night. Since the cabin had two bunks, Neely took the extra one. Unused to strenuous physical labor, the ex-Confederate fell asleep almost immediately while Scott elected to read by lamp light until he too fell asleep with the book still opened on his stomach.
After a quick wash in the morning, Scott made breakfast and then began to pack up his gear. As soon as the fencing was done, he intended to head back to Lancer.
“What’s your book’s name?”
The blond turned to look over at the other man. “It’s a book by Victor Hugo, called Les Misérables.”
“Strange title, what’s it mean?” Will Neely asked.
“It’s French for The Miserables. It’s about a man who is hounded by a policeman for a minor crime.”
“Cain’t say I ever heard of it, but then I’ve never been much on reading.”
“Some of your southern compatriots must have read it.”
Will flinched. He was sensitive about the issue of his near illiteracy. He’d been able to sign his name when he’d enlisted, but his book learning had been minimal. “Don’t doubt that; lots of them in the East went to college. Me and Johnny worked the land ’til we enlisted.”
Scott’s handsome face reddened at his faux pas. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just that I heard some of the Reb prisoners we captured referring to themselves as Lee’s Miserables. I could only assume that they had read or at least heard of Hugo’s book.”
The former private thought it over a moment. “Seems likely, don’t it? Din’t hear much ’bout the War after we was captured, least not until old Bobby Lee surrendered. We was just happy to be goin’ home. Damned fools that we were.”
Scott didn’t know what to say to that. What was there to say to a man who had lost everything? A fine eastern education didn’t teach a man to offer much more than platitudes and that just wasn’t enough. Skirting the issue, Lancer merely commented, “Shall we get started? I think we can be done by tonight if we try.”
“Lead the way, lieutenant sir. Once more into the breach.”
Startled, Scott stared at the other man.
Will grinned at him. “Frien’ of mine in the 8th kept sayin’ that. Said it come from some book, but I never got the chance to ask him which one. Poor Zeke died of typhoid at Alton,” Will explained.
Scott nodded. “It’s from a famous speech by an English king about another war in a different time.”
“Seems like there’s always a war somewhere. Cain’t figger out what makes men want to kill each other.” Will shook his head in despair. His grey hair, cut short to prevent lice, barely ruffled with the movement.
Scott smiled at his new friend. “I have the same problem, but I do know that if we don’t get the fences done, there are going to be lots of cattle storming the breaches.”
“Then let’s get on with it. I ain’t one for puttin’ things off.”
At noon the two men stopped their work once again for a brief break. This time Scott elected not to build a fire so the two munched on some stale bread and jerky with water from the canteen to wash it down. “Sure better ‘n hardtack.”
“What?” Scott’s thoughts had wandered while sitting under the shade tree.
“Hardtack. Broke one of my teeth on it. Got one of the men in the regiment to pull it out with pliers. Hurt like the devil, but the sergeant let me have a drop of his whisky. Helped some.”
“Sometimes I think it’s a wonder that anyone was left standing at the end of the War what with the dirt, disease and wounds. First thing I did when I made it home to Boston was sit in a tub of hot water for two hours!” A small smile curved at Scott’s lips as he recalled the pleasure of that bath.
“Know what you mean. Never was much for takin’ a bath, ‘cept once a week when I was young, but oncet I got out of prison I found me one of those public bath houses, paid ’em extry to let me in so I could scrub up with lye soap. Even used it on my clothes. ‘Course it’s not easy keepin’ clean when you’re on the road, but I gen’rally find a stream and rinse off some.”
Sadness filled Scott’s blue eyes, but still he hesitated to suggest what he’d been thinking about as a solution to Will’s problems.
Taking to his feet, Neely reminded him, “Guess we’d better get back to work. You want to get home t’night.”
“Wait! There’s something I want to put to you and I don’t want you to think this is charity or pity.”
Will turned slowly to look Scott full in the face. “If you’re thinkin’ of offerin’ me a job, you can fergit it. Can’t handle workin’ on a big ranch like yours, knowin’ what the hands are afeelin’. Call me a coward if ya want, but there t’is.”
“Believe it or not, I understand that and I was going to offer you a job, but not necessarily at Lancer.”
“Several miles north of Lancer, there’s a man named Lester Bolton. He lives on a small spread with his two sons. I know they need help, but they can’t afford to pay much.”
“I don’ understand. Why would they give me a job if’n there’s the three of them to work the land?”
“All three of them served in the Army of Northern Virginia then moved out here after the War. Lester was blinded by a sharpshooter’s bullet. His older son Elijah lost an arm at Antietam and the younger son, Tom, fought at Spotsylvania. His mind seemed to collapse with what he saw there. He’s strong as a horse, but he has to be told everything to do and rarely talks. That’s one of the reasons they came out here, hoping his mind would heal.”
“Frankly, they’ve got problems of their own so I can’t imagine your face would shock them and you’d have a chance at starting over – – helping yourself and them.”
“What makes you think they’d hire me?” Neely demanded.
“They need help and if you were willing to work for food and a place to stay, I think it would benefit all of you – – if you’re willing to try.”
Will bit at his lip. He had been disappointed so many times. “Guess I could give it a try. Kin always walk away I s’ppose.”
“Of course but give them a fair chance. They’re all good men who’ve had their share of bad luck. You of all people should understand that,” Scott pointed out.
Will’s eyes narrowed. “Guess you believe ‘ve been thinkin’ ’bout myself too much, ain’t ya? Maybe so but it’s easier than breakin’ your heart, carin’ ’bout someone or something.”
“You’ll get no argument from me on that score, but life itself isn’t easy. You just have to decide how you’re going to deal with it. I don’t mean to preach because Lord knows you’ve been through a worse hell than me. I just think it’s time for you to give yourself another chance. Wouldn’t you have wanted your Johnny to do just that if it had been you who had died instead?”
Will’s head dropped down to his chest. “He were always tellin’ me I worried too much, even as a boy. Johnny was always laughin’, makin’ jokes. He was real pop’lar in the regiment. At the end he was too weak t’even open his eyes. Guess somethin’ in me died along with him.”
“You wouldn’t be betraying him if you found a life and some happiness for yourself. He would want you to be happy. You just have to take that next step,” Scott offered quietly.
Neely stood there for a long time. “Guess I owe him and me somethin’ more ‘n just walkin’ around, taking up a few inches of dirt. ‘m not ready to be six feet under yet.”
“Good. The Boltons live some miles north of here. If you started now, you’d probably make it by nightfall.”
“What about the fencin’?”
“I can handle the rest of it. Besides, I’m not sure I want to go back to Lancer tonight anyway. I have some thinking of my own to do.”
“I’ll be off then. I don’t walk as fast as I used to. When I was a lad, I could run for miles and not git tired. Gettin’ old I guess.”
“Aren’t we all?” Scott laughed and then handed over a bag of food and Will’s wages. “Thanks again for your help and good luck. Maybe I’ll see you again.”
“Could be ‘n it should be me thankin’ you.”
“Don’t mention it. Old soldiers should stick together.” Scott reached out one hand to shake Will’s.
It was at that moment that both men heard the sound of hoofbeats in the distance.
“Who’s that?” Neely tensed as his eyes peered toward the horizon.
“I don’t know, maybe one of the men from the ranch,” Scott replied. “You can be on your way if you like. I’m sure there’s no danger.”
Will shook his head. “Maybe not but many a man has found hisself dead because he thought there was no danger. I’ll just hide behind those bushes. That way if there’s trouble I can cover you.”
“Thanks. I must admit it’s good to have someone guarding my back.”
Neely scurried off to find a secure hiding spot, and then they both waited. Soon it became apparent who the rider was since the horse he was riding was a palomino.
Johnny Lancer rode into the campsite with his usual minimum of fuss then jumped down from Barranca’s back. “Well, Boston, I figured I’d find you at work, not spendin’ the day in the shade.”
“I only have a few more hours of work to go, but thought I’d take a break if that’s all right with you, Brother?”
“Few more hours? You must have worked fast.” Moving into the shade, Johnny asked, “You got any coffee? It was a hot ride.”
“Decided not to make any. Settled for water.”
“S’ppose I’ll have to do the same.” Johnny took a long gulp from his canteen before lowering it. “Thought I’d come out ‘n help you, but it appears you don’t need it.”
“I had help.”
Baffled, Johnny looked around. “Help?”
Raising his voice slightly, Scott called out, “Will! It’s okay. This is my brother.”
Will emerged from the bush, but kept his distance, his rifle still at the ready.
“That’s Will Neely. He helped with the fencing in exchange for some food. Did a good job too,” Scott announced in a voice loud enough for Neely to hear.
Johnny Lancer had excellent eyesight. In his former profession he had had need of it so he could see Neely in the distance. He could also tell that there was something about the man’s face that didn’t appear right.
“Is your friend shy?” Johnny questioned pointedly.
“He just doesn’t like dealing with strangers.”
“Oh.” The word covered a myriad of feelings since Johnny was also somewhat leery of strangers. You never knew if they might be out to make a reputation at your expense.
Turning, Scott yelled at Will. “No need to worry. You go on. Tell the Boltons that I’ll be over to visit in a week or so.”
Neely waved in agreement and then started walking north.
Scott watched as the slight figure faded into the distance before turning back to his brother. “So did you really come out here to help or did Murdoch send you out here to check on me?”
The younger man shrugged. “Just thought you could use the help. Now, that the rain has stopped, Murdoch thinks the worst of the crisis is over.”
“That’s good to hear. Well, let’s get busy then. I want to get this done!”
Nonplussed by Scott’s desire for action, Johnny bit back the questions he still had, tied up Barranca and then pitched in.
The last post and wire were finally in place. Straightening his aching back, Johnny looked around. “Kinda late to ride back to the ranch tonight.”
“Maybe. Guess one more night at the cabin wouldn’t go amiss. We can always get an early start in the morning.”
“Good idea. ‘Sides I’m kinda hungry. You got any food left?” Johnny asked eagerly.
“Some but not a lot. Think we can make do though.”
“Teresa sent along some cookies. Guess I should have brought some more supplies. Didn’t realize you were giving handouts to strangers.” Johnny climbed up on Barranca’s back then set him into a gait to match the slow pace of the wagon.
“Will needed food. I had extra,” Scott said through a clenched jaw, inviting Johnny to make a comment.
Wisely, Johnny did not as the Lancer Brothers made their way to the line cabin.
Two hours later with the horses taken care of for the night and their bellies full, Scott flopped down on the bunk he’d been using for the past several nights. Even though the bunk wasn’t all that comfortable, it still helped to ease tired muscles.
Meanwhile Johnny still sat at the table, his chair tilted on the back two legs, nursing one last cup of coffee. Casting a glance over at his brother, he asked, “So where did you pick up your friend?”
“I told you,” Scott replied coolly. “He asked if I had food and he was willing to work for it. End of story.”
“So what’s this about the Boltons and what was wrong with his face?”
Scott pushed himself up on one elbow so he could see his brother clearly. “He had smallpox while in a prison camp. It ravaged his face and neck so he’s not too comfortable around most people.”
“And the Boltons?”
Scott gave a deep sigh of exasperation. “He needed a job, a home. I told him about the Boltons. I didn’t think they’d be shocked by his appearance and they can use his help.”
“Sounds like you trust him,” the dark-haired man observed.
“Is there any reason why I shouldn’t?”
“Not especially except up ’til a day or so ago, you’d never laid eyes on him. How do you know he won’t shoot the Boltons and make off with their things?”
Scott sat up on the edge of the bunk, bristling with anger. “Because if he’d wanted to do that, he could have started with me. He stayed overnight in this cabin and could just as easily hit me in the head and made off with the wagon, horses and the money in my pocket!”
“Easy there, Boston, I was just askin’. ‘s not always a good idea to out too much trust in people too fast out here in the West.”
Scott’s blue eyes flashed. “Sorry. I forgot I’m just a naïve easterner, at the mercy of one and all. Obviously, I don’t have any common sense and practically give my money away to anybody who wants it!”
“Boston. . . .”
“And stop calling me Boston! I may come from there, but Lancer’s my home now. I’ve worked hard to make it so and if you can’t respect me for that then that’s your problem.” Scott ran one hand through his short blond locks, not sure what else to do with his restless appendages.
Johnny’s chair dropped forward onto all four legs with a thud. “Whoa there, guess you’re not as cool and calm as I thought.”
“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me! We’re still practically strangers even after all these months and I don’t see it becoming any better unless you get off my back! I may never be the rancher you and Murdoch are, but I can take care of myself and do my job. Is that clear?”
“You sure about that, Bo. . .Brother? This isn’t the East, you know!” Johnny’s temper simmered at Scott’s sudden assertiveness.
“Westerners don’t have a monopoly on back-breaking work, Brother. I know there was poverty where you grew up, but you should visit some of the slums of Boston or New York. That’s what kills the soul, Johnny, hopelessness at watching your children die before they’re one. No wonder so many of them come out here looking for something better. Like Will Neely, they just want a chance.”
“You were never poor.” It wasn’t quite an accusation but close.
“No, I was fortunate. My grandfather could afford to send me to a good school, to make sure I had a home and food, but I did spend a year of my life in hell and survived so don’t pretend you and your rugged westerners are the only ones who know what suffering and hard work is like.”
Johnny sat still for a long moment, not knowing quite what to say. “You talkin’ ’bout the War? I saw a picture of you with that general.”
Wearily, Scott rubbed at his face. “I really don’t want to talk about this now, Johnny. I’m. . .tired and not up to it at this moment. I just need to know that you’re willing to give me a break. I know I’ll make mistakes, but as long as I’m not endangering lives or destroying the ranch, could you see your way clear into giving me credit for what I have accomplished instead of looking for faults? This ranch represents a second chance for me as well as you.”
Johnny shifted uneasily in the chair. “Maybe I have been hard on you, but I want you to learn the right way,” the younger man announced.
“I know and I appreciate all you’ve taught me, but sometimes I feel that you and Murdoch see me as useless. That I’ll never be good enough. If that’s what you think, is there any point in my staying at Lancer?”
Johnny said nothing.
“Is that what you want then? Do you want me to leave?”
Aroused from his thoughts, Johnny tersely replied, “Hell no! I don’t want you to leave me alone with the Old Man. You’re the only one who stands between me and him. I’d probably have left myself if it weren’t for you.”
“Then why. . . ?”
“Guess you’re at the bottom of the peckin’ order, Brother. He gets on my back so I get on yours. Not often you stand up for yourself the way you did when you took that fence on Barranca or when you punched me that time. Always knew this day would arrive. Been lookin’ forward to it in some ways.”
“I figured if I pushed hard enough you’d fight back. Wanted a brother, not some dandy who was afraid to speak up.”
Scott let out a sigh. “I haven’t been that bad and you’re just lucky I didn’t prick your arrogant hide with my sword!”
“Sword? You’ve got a sword?”
“All cavalrymen have swords, mine is in Boston, but I’m sure my grandfather would send it out if I asked.” Scott used one hand in a thrusting motion toward Johnny.
“Uh, I don’t think that’s necessary.” The young man licked at his suddenly dry lips. “Now that we both know where we stand I’m sure we can both make an effort to be reasonable.”
“I’m always reasonable,” the former officer assured him.
Johnny grinned. “Pleased to hear that. I’ve got a bit of a temper myself.”
“Really?” Scott asked sarcastically.
“Yeah. ‘s got me into trouble at times, includin’ bein’ put in front of a firing squad, but I’m workin’ on it. ‘m not Johnny Madrid anymore so I can’t go at things in the same way.”
“That’s good to hear. I’d just as soon have you around for awhile. We’ve been separated for too many years as it is.”
Johnny leaned back so the chair was tilted again. “Can’t deny that. Trouble is we can’t ever get those years back.”
“I know, but we can try to make this work between us. It’s just a matter of trust.”
“Big word that.”
“The biggest but I’m willing to try.” Scott waited. He needed to hear the younger man say the same thing.
“Doesn’t come easy to a man like me, but maybe it’s time to try. ‘Spect you might be worth it.”
“I could say the same thing for you, Brother, but I don’t want to swell your head any more than it is.”
Johnny crooked him a smile. “And for good reason, Brother. Don’t forget that!”
“I won’t as long as you remember my sword.” Seeing the look on Johnny’s face, Scott smiled sweetly at his slightly deflated sibling. “Now we’d better get some sleep. I have a feeling that Murdoch will have a hundred jobs waiting for us when we get home.”
“No doubt ’bout that, but since you’re so sure of yourself as a rancher, I just might let you handle ’em all on your own!”
Johnny Madrid Lancer, gunslinger extraordinaire, never saw the pillow which flew through the air striking him in the nose, resulting in his undignified tumble out of the precariously balanced chair and onto the floor, but he could definitely hear the satisfied belly laugh coming from his brother’s direction.
*While Will Neely is a fictional character, Private John Neely of the 8th Missouri is not. He was captured at Helena, Arkansas, on July 4. 1863. After being sent to the Alton Prison Camp in Illinois, he contracted smallpox and died at the Smallpox Hospital on Smallpox Island on August 15, 1863. If you visit North Alton today, you can see the obelisk memorial erected over the graves of the 1534 men who died at Alton of smallpox and other diseases. Another 300 men were buried on the island itself which is now under the waters of the Mississippi.
Most Americans have heard of Andersonville, GA or Libby Prison in Richmond, but not many people are aware of the horrors experienced by Confederate soldiers in such places as Alton (IL), Camp Douglas (IL), Point Lookout (MD), Fort Delaware (DE), Elmira (NY) and Rock Island (IL) where thousands of young Confederates met their end. It is indeed a blot on the history of the U.S. that prisoners on both sides were treated so callously, leaving them to die so far from home and in such heinous conditions.
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