He rode through the thick
brush, pushing away a branch that threatened to dislodge his hat. They
had been riding since sun-up, and Scott Lancer could feel his brother's
gaze settle on him, a question in the blue eyes.
"Just another few miles,
and we'll stop for the day. All right, little brother?"
"That's what you said
last time, Scott. Where we going, anyway?"
Scott only smiled. He
had been planning on making this trip alone, but for some reason Johnny
had felt the need to tag along. Maybe it had been the pensive mood Scott
had found himself in since his birthday three days before, which had caused
his brother to insist on accompanying him. Whatever the reason, he was
unexpectedly glad of the company.
"Come on, Scott. At least
tell me when we'll get there." Johnny removed his hat and wiped the sweat
from his brow with his sleeve. "Damn, it's hot."
"We should get there
sometime tomorrow afternoon...that is, if you can handle a little while
longer in the saddle. There's supposed to be a small stream up ahead a
few miles. I figured we could camp there for the night, get an early start
in the morning."
"Well, why didn't you
"Just trying to teach
you a little patience," Scott teased.
"Lost cause, Boston.
In fact..." Johnny slapped his horse's rump, sending the mount forward
and leaving his brother with no choice but to give chase.
Scott could barely make
out his brother through the dust kicked up by the pounding hooves. Johnny
was a good rider. His years as a gunslinger had made that particular talent
a necessity. But Scott, too, had been in a position where his skill as
a horseman had often meant the difference between life and death. He slowly
gained on the younger man, his lithe body straining forward over his horse.
After a good two miles he passed him, and laughed for the sheer joy of
it, for the freedom he had found in this wild land.
Finally, the stream came
into view and he slowed to allow Johnny to catch up. Both men were panting,
sweat running down their shirts as they walked their horses the last stretch.
"I don't know who looks
worse, us or the horses. But that was some ride, big brother."
"Teach you to mind your
better," he said with a grin.
"It got us here, didn't
it?" Johnny laughed.
Scott shook his head.
He should have known. "Remind to to tell you sometime about another ride
I took. One with a far different outcome."
Johnny looked at him,
a questioning expression on his face.
Scott shook his head.
"Not today. It's too nice a day to ruin."
Johnny seemed willing
to let it go, and they continued on to the edge of the stream, picking
out a stand of trees to tie the horses under. Dismounting, they unloaded
and watered the horses before seeing to their own needs, each chore done
with the easy grace both men had acquired over the months of their new
lives. Ranching had turned out to be a more strenuous living than either
had done before.
The sun was setting as
Scott squatted down by the fire, poking at the wood as he worked at keeping
the flames high. He looked over at his brother stretched out on his bedroll,
his back propped up against his saddle. In his hands, he nursed a steaming
cup of coffee, liberally laced with the brandy Scott had surprised him
Johnny glanced up and
cocked his head to one side. "What?"
Scott stood up and, pouring
himself some coffee, sat cross-legged on his own bedroll next to his brother.
He reached out and took the flask, adding some of the brandy to his own
cup. "I hope this lasts. We still have the trip back."
"Yeah, but the big question
is, back from where?"
"You'll find out tomorrow."
Scott looked into his cup, staring at the dark liquid as if his answers
could be found there.
"Scott? What's the matter?"
He looked up from his
musings. "Can I ask you something? Something personal?"
Johnny shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know. Guess it depends on what it is."
Scott hesitated a moment,
trying to find the right words. "Do you ever wonder what your life would
have been like if you had grown up on Lancer? If you had grown up with
both your parents?"
The younger man didn't
answer right away, and Scott almost thought his brother wasn't going to
when Johnny finally spoke. "When I was a kid...well, you know what kind
of stories I was fed about Murdoch. What a bastard he was, throwing out
his own wife and kid. So, no, I never did. I always figured we were better
off without him. It wasn't until I got to Lancer that I found out what
really happened, that it was my mother who wanted out. How 'bout you?"
"I wondered...a lot.
My grandfather gave me the same story, that Murdoch had abandoned his wife
and child, that the ranch had been more important to him than anything.
But the problem was, he also told me all these stories about my mother,
how beautiful and smart she was. That she could have had her pick of any
man she wanted. It didn't make sense. If she was so smart, how could she
have been taken in so readily? And be willing to leave her home, start
a new life out in the middle of nowhere, if Murdoch was the no-account
drifter my grandfather made him out to be?"
He sighed, and lay down
on his bedroll, gazing at the night sky. "I spent most of my life wondering
about it. I still do."
The younger man remained
quiet. Finally he reached over and laid his hand on his brother's shoulder.
"Does it matter so much? I've never had a lot of book learning. You know
that." He gave a lop-sided grin. "But I know that the man you are now,
the way you were brought up had a lot to do with it. Maybe you should just
go with that. Even if your grandfather did stretch the truth a bit, all
right, a lot, he raised you to be a good, decent man. Maybe that's all
we can ask for, all we really should expect."
Scott smiled, covering
his brother's hand for a moment. "You're probably right. I think too much
for my own good sometimes."
"No argument there, big
brother." Johnny rolled back, and grabbed his jacket as a cover.
Scott watched his brother drift into sleep. What was it about Johnny that he could cut away the extraneous and see the essential core of things? Possibly the life he had led had left no other option. There had been few grays in Johnny Madrid's life. But what of Scott Lancer? His own life had been complicated by rivalries he hadn't been aware of, an unseen battle that had waged for his soul. He wearily closed his eyes. He hadn't been able to work his way through it before. Tonight would be no different.
They woke early, and
headed out as the sun peeked over the nearby hills. They made good time,
neither talking much. Johnny seemed to pick up on Scott's state of mind,
and now both men rode in contemplative silence.
The sun was at its zenith
when they entered a small valley. An abandoned road meandered through,
skirting an empty field. About half way past it, Scott pulled to the side
"Where are we?" Johnny's
concern shaded his words as he watched the play of emotions over his brother's
"Here. She died right
here." Scott's voice was soft, filled with an old sorrow.
"Who? Who died?"
Scott swallowed. "My
mother. Twenty-five years ago today."
"Scott..." The younger
man leaned over, and grabbed his brother's forearm.
"No, I'm okay. Her body's
not here anymore. Grandfather had it disinterred and moved to the family
crypt years ago," He looked around. "He couldn't stand to think of her
out here, all alone. I can't say I blame him."
He dismounted and began
walking, his stride slow as he memorized the place. He had no intentions
of coming back. It was just that this would have been the first year he
hadn't visited her, sought her out on the anniversary of her death, to
pay homage to a mother he never knew.
It had become a ritual
right after his fifth birthday. Five days after the celebration, a riot
of balloons and laughing children, his grandfather had harnessed the buggy
and the two of them made the trip to the cemetery. There, Scott sat and
listened to the old man go on about his daughter, and about the man Scott
only knew as the villain in Harlen Garrett's melodrama of revenge and death.
Every year, until Scott had left for college, it had been the same diatribe
against Murdoch Lancer, the same litany of praise for his dead daughter.
It had seemed so different,
the first time Scott had made the trip by himself. In the quiet of the
churchyard, he had tried to find a peace of some sort with the woman who
had given him birth, an understanding of who she had been. Somehow, it
had never come.
He continued to walk,
the swish of the tall grass and the songs of birds the only sounds breaking
the silence. He thought she would have liked it here, the woman who had
loved Murdoch Lancer, and the untamed country he had brought her to. A
love she assuredly had passed on to her son. Suddenly, it occurred to him
that, all along, he had been looking for her in all the wrong places.
She was not in the dank mausoleum in Boston, nor in the empty field where
her soul had taken flight.
He looked back and realized
he had a shadow, his younger brother dogging his steps. He smiled, turned
around to pull him forward, and threw his arm over the shorter man's shoulders.
"Come on, let's go."
They walked back to the
horses and without a backwards glance, began the journey home.